Democrats may soon shake up primary calendar: Why it matters and who could replace Iowa

The 2024 presidential race is still two years away but a major change to Democrats' primary process -- affecting which candidates run and which states get first crack at voting on their chances -- could come any day now.

Some party members are just waiting for their current leader, Joe Biden, to weigh in himself.

For months, members of the Democratic National Committee's group focused on rules and bylaws have been meeting in an effort to refresh the order of states in the party's presidential nominating contest. Many Democrats believe the current starting schedule of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and then South Carolina does not accurately represent the makeup of the party's voters and, as such, shuts out candidates who might ultimately do better nationwide.

These critics cite Biden's own, deceptively rough nominating experience in 2020 -- when poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire led many observers to predict that voters were rejecting him.

Instead, Biden went on to easily win the Democratic nomination once more states voted. He was then elected to the White House.

"It really does matter which state goes first in the calendar. The state that goes first really shapes the start of the primary: It dictates how candidates spend their resources in the off-year, it can create momentum, it can set the tone," said Nevada Democratic strategist Rebecca Lambe.

MORE: Move over Iowa. New Jersey Democrats vie to hold early presidential primary.

Earlier this year, national Democrats began a formal push to shake up the calendar, putting in jeopardy the first-in-the-nation status for the caucuses in Iowa, which is older and whiter and trending more conservative than many other parts of the country, including states that have been electing Democrats. (The second state on the calendar, New Hampshire, guarantees its spot through a law that could set off a scheduling scramble if any primary is moved before it -- more on that below.)

The DNC, made up of state party chairs, politicians and the like, shelved plans to decide on a restructured presidential nominating calendar from July until after the midterms, setting a new deadline for early December.

Biden has not publicly offered his preferences on the calendar and his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, on Monday referred reporters' questions to the DNC.

Some committee members say they have found that vexing as they approach making significant changes to the process that will impact what is likely to be the president's own reelection bid in 2024 -- and potentially the campaign cycles beyond.

PHOTO: Senate candidate Jamie Harrison, left, sits with Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard during the King Day celebration at the Dome March and Rally on Jan. 20, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Senate candidate Jamie Harrison, left, sits with Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden, center, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard during the King Day celebration at the Dome March and Rally on Jan. 20, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

DNC members said that a lack of input from the White House might be holding up information disseminated to them by the committee about a meeting on Thursday to start settling on the primary calendar, with December's deadline looming.

"The DNC has gone completely silent, and it's understood that it is because the White House hasn't made a decision on what it wants," said one member of the committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.

Another DNC member familiar with decision-making, who likewise requested anonymity, told ABC News that they do not expect Biden to "weigh in heavily" on the calendar but they do expect his staff to make "winks and nods" privately before the group convenes Thursday -- which this member would view as a generally encouraging sign that the White House approves of the party's decision to pursue a different nominating calendar.

This member conceded that many of their colleagues have been "frustrated" by the silence, however.

"We all want guidance. We want to know what the thinking is," the member said. "We kind of know in this business that if the White House is not weighing super strongly about something, it's because it's kind of a wink and a nod that they're agreeing with the direction that this is going in, at least, the broad strokes. And Democrats, we all agree that this needs to change."

The White House declined to comment for this story.

Carol Fowler, a member of the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) from South Carolina, said she thinks Biden's decision in this process "absolutely" will impact the way the nominating calendar will be finalized.

"I have always assumed that at some point in this process, we will hear from the White House and know what President Biden's preference is. There is nobody on that committee -- I don't think -- who would want to oppose the president in this," she said.

It may all seem bureaucratic and confusing to the casual observer, but the stakes of the decision are high, with many Democrats saying the traditional order of their primaries is in desperate need of a change to encourage the kinds of candidates who can ultimately appeal to voters nationwide -- the true purpose of the process.

"I would 100% call it an imperative for the national party to figure this out ahead of a competitive primary going forward," said Rebecca Pearsey, a Democratic strategist who worked on Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's 2020 campaign.

Party experts said two key questions hang over the deliberations, which are expected to begin at the meeting on Thursday and stretch into the weekend:

If the DNC swaps Iowa out as the first state, how can Democrats continue to ensure an early focus on the larger Midwest, which is home to multiple battleground states? And what order will that final grouping of early states be in?

Below is a breakdown of the current early states and two potential additions.

PHOTO: A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses on a downtown skywalk, in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 4, 2020.  (Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE)
PHOTO: A pedestrian walks past a sign for the Iowa Caucuses on a downtown skywalk, in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 4, 2020. (Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE)

Will another Midwest state replace Iowa?

Michigan and Minnesota have been cited by committee members as the Midwestern front-runners jockeying for Iowa's top spot. Both states applied earlier this year to be the first state on the nominating calendar and both are run by Democratic governments, making it easier to shift primary dates.

Minnesota Democrats, in a June pitch, argued that their high turnout -- especially among diverse racial communities -- along with strong union membership and robust LGBTQ communities should be a draw. While Michigan is racially more diverse than Minnesota, Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's chairman, Ken Martin, told ABC News that his state wins out as far as voter turnout among those same groups.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has long championed Michigan's inclusion in the early primary window, believes her home state is "very much in the mix" and balked at the insinuation from some other Democrats that the state is simply too large and too expensive for candidates that early in the cycle.

"Our state reflects the diversity of this country. And that's what you need," Dingell said. "You need to test these candidates so they are being screened for the question: Can they win in November? And Michigan meets that criteria to a T."

But some in the party said that one of the biggest limitations for Michigan holding an earlier primary is its size. For example, committee members noted that the state's large media markets could cost initially lesser-known candidates -- like, in 2008, Barack Obama -- a real shot at emerging from a crowded field.

PHOTO: Rep. Debbie Dingell walks through the U.S. Capitol prior to an event on Dec. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Rep. Debbie Dingell walks through the U.S. Capitol prior to an event on Dec. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Barack Obama attends a Democratic party Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Indianapolis, Ind., May 4, 2008.   (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Barack Obama attends a Democratic party Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Indianapolis, Ind., May 4, 2008. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

Another factor, some members said, would be that Michigan would award so many more delegates than the other traditional early states (like New Hampshire and South Carolina) that it would create an imbalance. Candidates would essentially focus only on one part of the country and that state's voters would gain outsized influence, repeating the current problem.

The odds are increasingly stacked against Iowa to keep its top spot on Democrats' nominating calendar Still, Scott Brennan, Iowa's committee member on the national RBC, told ABC News that he feels confident his state will be competitive in keeping its spot after they restructured their infamously complicated caucus process to "satisfy all the concerns that were ever raised."

Brennan said it would be a "tremendous win" if the state were to stay in the early window.

In South Carolina -- the first Southern state on the calendar and the first state with a sizable bloc of Black voters, who are a crucial Democratic constituency -- state Democrats said the optimistic they'll keep a spot as one of the initial nominating states.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire did not suffer from the crippling logistical issues that hamstrung Democrats' 2020 Iowa caucuses. But the state, which is about 90% white, still faces criticism that it lacks sufficient diversity to represent the party base as it fights to keep its No. 2 slot.

However, the state Democratic Party insists on its record of holding successful primaries that force candidates to wear out their shoe leather to prove their skill at face-to-face campaigning.

"New Hampshire voters are extremely active. They're very involved in the process," said New Hampshire Democratic Party spokesperson Monica Venzke. "Candidates who come to New Hampshire leave stronger candidates."

PHOTO: A Voter casts her vote in the Democratic Primary at the Varnville Firehouse, Jan. 26, 2008, in Varnville, S.C.  (Stephen Morton/Getty Images)
PHOTO: A Voter casts her vote in the Democratic Primary at the Varnville Firehouse, Jan. 26, 2008, in Varnville, S.C. (Stephen Morton/Getty Images)

State law also mandates that New Hampshire must hold its primary seven days before any other in the country. Neither Democrats or Republicans in state government seem eager to change that rule, which would pose a hurdle to other states looking to leapfrog it on the calendar. If the DNC chooses to have another state primary go first, that could trigger a kind of calendar arms race in which New Hampshire simply moves its primary up as well to abide by its law.

Currently, Iowa can go ahead of it because Iowa holds caucuses, not primaries. The caucus system, which is different than a standard election, is used by fewer and fewer states and territories each cycle. Nevada abandoned it after 2020.

Nevada

Nevada is one of the states making the biggest push to go first in the primary calendar, which ticks many of the DNC's self-described boxes.

Nevada boasts significant racial diversity and is not expensive or vast enough -- in terms of the necessary campaign team -- to price out some candidates. It also remains a perennial swing state, so a candidate who wins enough Democratic voters there could make the argument that they are more electable in a tight race.

"Nevada is a state where you can find out who can go the distance," said Lambe, the strategist.

As for how Nevada could be squeezed ahead of New Hampshire's state law, though, some in the party said it would be a thorny matter best solved by the national committee.

"It's really going to be an issue for the DNC to work through on how to enforce the new calendar," a strategist said, "but it can be dealt with with tough rules and sanctions."

Democrats may soon shake up primary calendar: Why it matters and who could replace Iowa originally appeared on abcnews.go.com