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Democrats are trying to revamp their presidential primary calendar

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Democrats are trying to revamp their presidential primary calendar. President Biden's recommendation to give the No. 1 spot to South Carolina was approved by a Democratic National Committee panel. But the plan faces resistance from Iowa and New Hampshire. NPR's Asma Khalid, Domenico Montanaro and Barbara Sprunt take us through some of the challenges.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: If we zoom back a little bit on why there's a lot of outrage coming out of these states, why the senators of New Hampshire have been so vocally opposed to the changes, generations of voters in New Hampshire and Iowa view this like their political birthright, you know? They take this job of vetting presidential hopefuls very seriously. And they relish that they get to kind of kick the tires of who's going to be, you know, the nominee for the parties. They take it seriously. And I think when we talk about why there has been such a reaction from these states, that's an important element to consider as well.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Gosh, so poor Iowans because it does not appear that they are going to be going first in this future nominating calendar the Democrats...

SPRUNT: Yeah.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Nope (laughter).

KHALID: So let's talk about that. At the end of last year, the Democrats rolled out their plans for this new nominating process that put the state of South Carolina first. And, you know, my understanding from the reporting that you all have done is that that decision did not go over well with all Democrats.

SPRUNT: That's an understatement, yes. Yeah, you know, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the DNC met in December. As you said, they voted on a new slate of states to go in that early nominating window, South Carolina being first. And then they put New Hampshire, which has traditionally been the first primary in the nation, second, on the same date as Nevada. And then they elevated Georgia and Michigan so that their primaries would also be included in that early window. That means New Hampshire wasn't happy because it wasn't the first primary in the nation anymore. And it means that I wasn't happy because it's not even in the first slate of early states at all.

And I was in that room. I would say there was polite tension in the room. But you saw a lot more open revolt on Twitter. And, you know, New Hampshire basically said, this is cute. Thanks for your opinion. But we're still going to go first. We have a law on the books, a state law on the books that says we get to go first. And we plan on doing that anyway. Thanks for sharing your opinion, but we're going to do what we're going to do.

MONTANARO: Well, what's difficult about that is that the Democratic National Committee obviously controls the party process. And they can penalize states with, you know, cutting the number of delegates, for example, to the conventions, which they've done in the past. So they have some track record of following through on Florida and Michigan, for example, in 2008 when they tried to jump the line. So they're really cautious about that.

You know, for the most part, most Democrats in the DNC and otherwise are in favor of this switch. It passed through the Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting. There was a deadline of January 5 - last week - where the five states that they decided to move up had to all submit, you know, statements saying that they were going to be ready and able to hold primaries not just on those dates, but also to be able to do things like expand voting access, like, you know, expanding absentee voting. That's become a real hang-up for states with Republican governors and legislatures like Georgia and New Hampshire.

KHALID: So Domenico, I want to ask you, though, a quick follow-up about South Carolina itself going first because, you know, as Barbara was saying, the decision got kind of slammed in some quarters, at least that's what I saw in some of the public conversation that spilled over. Is it kind of a done deal that South Carolina is going to go first despite some of this criticism?

MONTANARO: Well, some of the criticism really centered around the fact that South Carolina was a state that really propelled President Biden - now-President Biden...

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: ...To the nomination. And he's the one who pushed for South Carolina to go first. So a lot of people see that as a bit of political payback, you know, and didn't like the optics of that. But what Democratic strategists tell me is that there's almost no way that Biden will be derailed anyway. So it doesn't particularly matter which states and that, you know, he has his prerogative to go this direction. But I did speak with Faiz Shakir, who is - who was Bernie Sanders' campaign manager in 2020 and is a voting DNC member.

FAIZ SHAKIR: South Carolina has no business going first for a variety of reasons. You know, it is a heavily anti-union state, heavily opposed to democratic values. You look at their war on women. You look at the very conservative nature of the culture of that place.

MONTANARO: Yeah. The basic idea from him is that the states that go first should be the most competitive states in the general election so that Democrats can try to win over those voters and win in general elections.

SPRUNT: To that point, Domenico, it was really interesting because, you know, we talk about the process of the DNC changing the slate of states. But, I mean, this was a long process. It didn't just happen in December. States were making pitches over the last year to the committee about, you know, why they deserved to go first. And a lot of states seemed to feel blindsided when the actual decision came out for that very reason that you alluded to about South Carolina's competitiveness because from jump, the bylaws committee had said that one of the factors they were looking for when they would pick this new set of states is who's competitive in the general election, in addition to, you know, diversity and voter access. And, you know, South Carolina is not what we think of when we think of a state that's competitive in the general.

KHALID: I guess what I'm hearing from supporters of the decision to put South Carolina first is, well, it's a fairly small state. It's a state that candidates and campaigns could travel across. And they don't have to have particularly well-endowed campaigns to make their pitch in South Carolina, as opposed to a state like Michigan or Georgia that's just much more expensive to campaign in.

MONTANARO: Well, there's also a little bit of track record. You know, South Carolina was moved into the first four state windows and has been doing this since 2008, where candidates have now gotten kind of used to how to campaign in the state. You're right that retail politicking is also potentially possible there because it's smaller. But, you know, the real elephant in the room here is that 60-plus percent of the primary electorate in South Carolina are Black voters. And that's a big reason for why Democrats feel like this state should go first. It's been there before. And they feel like that, you know, this is a way for Democrats to really appeal to Black voters, which is a voting bloc that is one of the most, if not the most strongly Democratic group. And anybody who's going to win the nomination is going to need Black voters on their side.

FADEL: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, Asma Khalid and Barbara Sprunt. For more, you can find the NPR Politics Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF IKEBE SHAKEDOWN'S "RIO GRANDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.