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Reshuffling the primaries: What it means

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AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File
FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 29, 2020, after winning the South Carolina primary, as Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., watches.

If President Biden runs for re-election — and his move to change the primary calendar sends a clear signal that he is running — he doesn’t want any surprises. The traditional calendar facilitates surprises.

The reason Iowa and New Hampshire have gotten to go first is not that they are diverse. They are not. In 2020, Iowa Democratic caucus participants and New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were about 90 percent white, according to the polls.

The real justification is that they are small.

Lesser-known contenders can run in Iowa and New Hampshire without having to raise huge amounts of money. Retail campaigning can produce surprises like Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Pete Buttigieg in 2020.

The press thrives on surprises — twists and turns and unexpected developments. Everything President Biden is trying to avoid. He does not intend to be the first incumbent president defeated for re-nomination in his own party.

In 2024, the bigger story is likely to be the Republican race. Donald Trump was the big loser in this year’s midterm, and he could face strong primary opposition in 2024 (especially if he is indicted). A heated contest between former President Trump and, most likely, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis should provide plenty of drama.

One change is already underway in both parties: the move away from caucuses to primaries.

The number of states conducting Democratic caucuses went from 14 in 2016 to three in 2020; two of them (Iowa and Nevada) were early voting states. On the Republican side, the number of states holding caucuses declined from 13 in 2016 to five in 2020.

President Biden is proposing to ban all caucuses and replace them with primaries. What’s the difference? A primary is an election. A caucus is a meeting. To vote in a caucus, you have to show up at a particular place and time, sometimes at a remote location and on a cold winter night.

Caucuses typically have no provision for a secret ballot — the very essence of democracy — instead, you have to stand up in front of your friends and neighbors and God and everybody and declare whom you are supporting.

Caucuses attract activists. Some people defend caucuses as “democracy in action,” but it’s public voting like in communist Cuba or China. An Iowa business owner quoted in the New York Times called his state’s caucuses “the dork Olympics.”

Voting in a primary is much easier than attending a caucus. And more democratic. In 2020, Iowa had a voting-age population of nearly 2.5 million. Just over 176,000 Iowans participated in the 2020 Democratic caucuses. New Hampshire had a much smaller voting-age population (1.1 million). But the New Hampshire Democratic primary got a larger turnout (nearly 300,000).

In 2020, Biden provided the big surprise. After coming in a miserable fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second to Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Nevada, Biden’s candidacy was considered finished. Then he picked up momentum (what George H.W. Bush in 1988 called “the Big Mo”) by winning South Carolina.

Most South Carolina Democratic primary voters were Black. In his letter to the Democratic National Committee requesting changes, Biden asked that “voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process.” Biden won South Carolina with 49 percent of the vote, way ahead of Bernie Sanders, who got 20 percent.

Biden says that civil rights is the reason he went into politics. In 2020, he was endorsed for president by Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a senior Black member of the House and a Democratic party leader. Perhaps most impressive for Black voters, Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president. Having broken through in South Carolina, Biden went on to sweep the Super Tuesday states and capture the Democratic nomination.

Biden owes South Carolina a huge debt, and he is repaying it by advocating South Carolina as the first primary in 2024. With Clyburn’s continued support, Biden is virtually certain to win South Carolina. No surprises.

It won’t mean much if President Biden does not draw a significant challenger. But there could still be a lot of twists and turns on the Republican side. When he first ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, Trump won all the states Democrats are now proposing to go early (before Super Tuesday) in 2024.

But in 2016, the non-Trump vote was split among a lot of other Republican candidates (among them, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Ted Cruz). Today, Trump is more clearly associated with far-right extremists. In 2024, anti-Trump Republicans are likely to be more numerous, but they will have to unite behind a single alternative. Maybe DeSantis. A Trump v. DeSantis showdown is likely to give the press exactly what it wants: excitement and surprises.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags Bernie Sanders Biden biden 2024 Black voters caucuses Democratic primary Donald Trump James Clyburn Jeb Bush Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Joe Biden presidential campaign John Kasich Marco Rubio New Hampshire primary Pete Buttigieg primary calendar Primary election Republican presidential primaries Ron DeSantis South Carolina South Carolina primary Ted Cruz

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