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The fight begins over first primary of 2024 presidential contest

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Last week former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Nevada should be the first state to vote in the presidential nominating process. Of course, such a move surely would set off a chain reaction, ending in a seismic shift in the way our two parties select their nominees.

New Hampshire has held the nation’s first primary since 1920. It is geographically accessible in size and population, placing greater weight on old-fashioned retail politics, where many voters see and even meet multiple candidates before making up their minds. But New Hampshire is also one of the country’s least ethnically diverse states. It also lacks a true urban center, as its largest city — Manchester — is not even one of the United States’ 250 largest cities. Additionally, in the last three competitive primaries, the New Hampshire winner has not gone on to win the nomination. In other words, many question whether New Hampshire still deserves its century-long status.

Meanwhile, Iowa has held the country’s first caucus — and first nominating votes — since 1972 for Democrats and since 1976 for Republicans. And aside from this year, the state has picked the eventual nominee in three of the last four competitive elections. But this year’s challenges in the Democratic race raised questions about whether Iowa should maintain its first-in-the-nation position. Like New Hampshire, Iowa’s population is over 90 percent white. Also, most former caucus states have switched to primaries, making Iowa’s endearingly quaint (to some people) way of choosing a candidate look increasingly archaic.

Former Sen. Reid’s declaration that his home state should come first should not be analyzed in a vacuum. Iowa and New Hampshire are on a precarious perch. Their status is based on fiat, not law. (Well, New Hampshire state law authorizes its secretary of state to schedule its primary first, but it takes only one other state to enact a similar law to throw this entire process into chaos.)

Should Reid get his way, it would not end there. 

In addition to the economic benefits of hosting early nominating elections, there is also the prestige of helping to choose the next president — of being not only relevant, but essential on the road to the White House. Of course, this prestige can then translate into policies benefiting these early states.

If President Biden and the Democratic National Committee are ready to end 48 years of tradition, and assuming Republican-led states and the Republican National Committee are ready to go along with it, many states’ leaders are poised to push for first-in-the-nation status. The resulting scheduling surely won’t make most states happy — and if assigned seemingly at random, likely would be contested ahead of 2028, and then again ahead of 2032, and so on.

Politicians, journalists, and others have proposed various methods for nominating presidential candidates. Many aim for supposed “fairness,” such as rotating which states go first, or establishing a single primary day when everyone votes. But while fairness is essential for intra-party buy-in, it does not reward states best positioned to decide who wins.

For example, the parties might agree to schedule battleground-state primaries earliest. Last month, eight states were decided by 3.4 percentage points or less (the next closest was Texas at 5.6 percentage points). By scheduling those eight states earliest in 2024, each party could more effectively battle-test their candidates with voters who probably will decide the election.

Or parties might examine “twinning” primaries throughout the nominating season. The first two states (one Republican, one Democratic) would be the ones that have seen the biggest percentage increase in voter registration since the previous election. The next two states would be those with the next biggest percentage increase for each party, and so on. This approach would help parties parlay rising enthusiasm into meaningful, sustained engagement that might boost votes in November.

Again, Reid’s comments are important, and they signal something much larger. If Democrats and Republicans dramatically remake the presidential primary system for the first time in generations, it should be sturdy enough to withstand serious scrutiny from states that feel cheated and flexible enough to be re-examined every four years based on which states merit greater attention.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.

Tags 2024 presidential election Elections Electoral reform in the United States Harry Reid Iowa Iowa caucuses Joe Biden Nevada New Hampshire New Hampshire primaries United States presidential primaries

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