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Democrats move to change presidential primary calendar, but what does that mean for California?

South Carolina is set to be No. 1 — on the presidential nominating calendar, that is.

National Democrats voted on Friday, Dec. 2 to shake up the calendar, replacing Iowa with South Carolina as the state to lead off the primary election season in 2024. The Palmetto State would hold its primary on Feb. 3 with New Hampshire and Nevada holding their contests three days later. Georgia would hold its primary the following week; Michigan would go the week after.

The change in the calendar has been championed by President Joe Biden, who says the modification is needed to better represent the diverse voters in the party.

“Our early states must reflect the overall diversity of our party and our nation — economically, geographically, demographically,” Biden said in a letter to the Democratic National Committee’s rulemaking arm this week. “This means more diverse states earlier in the process and more diversity in the overall mix of early states.”

The president said there should be stronger representation from urban, suburban and rural regions as well as union households. “We need to include voters from many backgrounds, not to ratify the choice of the earliest states, but as full stakeholders in making the choice,” he said.



The changes were approved by the DNC’s rulemaking committee this week but will still need approval from the full DNC — likely to come early next year.

But what, if anything, do these changes to the nominating contest calendar mean for California?

Is California ready for ‘prime time?’

In 2017, California lawmakers said the state was ready for prime time.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation moving the statewide presidential primary to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March — which meant the 2020 presidential primary election was held on Super Tuesday, an election day when the greatest number of states hold primary contests.

“Candidates will not be able to ignore the largest, most diverse state in the nation as they seek our country’s highest office,” Alex Padilla, now a U.S. senator who was then California’s secretary of state, said at the time.

According to Padilla’s office, when California pushed up its presidential primary to early February in 2008, the state saw the largest voter turnout for a primary election since 1980.

So far, California’s presidential primary election in 2024 is still slated for March, according to the secretary of state’s office. But overall, the Golden State’s schedule for these elections hasn’t been stagnant.

“For better or worse, we haven’t had much luck in making our primary matter,” said Dan Schnur, a former campaign consultant who teaches about political messaging at UC Berkeley and USC. “It’s been early, it’s been late; the legislature has moved it back and forth several times. But it’s never seemed to give the state a very significant role.”

The presidential primaries were held in June in 2016 and 2012, but voters cast ballots in February in 2008. The presidential primary was held in March in 2004, 2000 and 1996; in 1992, it was in June.

Lori Cox Han, a political science professor and director of the Presidential Studies Program at Chapman University, said California will always play an important role because it has the largest number of delegates. But a change in the calendar, particularly to broaden who exactly gets a say early on in the process, could mean a more diverse slate of candidates will be before California voters.

“A shakeup in the Democratic calendar (and assuming Republicans will do something similar) will mean that states that are more demographically diverse will get to play the role of winnowing the field in the early contests, which may allow a more diverse field of candidates to still be competitive by the time voters in California get a say,” Han said. “That, in my opinion, is a good thing for all voters in California.”

While it might not impact California’s system, the presidential primary switcheroo could, however, be possibly beneficial to one particular Californian, Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, suggested.

If Vice President Kamala Harris performs well in South Carolina — should Biden forgo a reelection bid and she makes a run for the White House — moving the Palmetto State to the top of the nominating contest calendar could help her secure the nomination, he said.

“Under the 2020 calendar, it could be hard to survive through a bunch of tough states and hang on long enough to do the comeback win in South Carolina like Biden did,” Mitchell said. “It would be much better for her to get a big win out of the gate.”

Biden got his big boost in 2020 when House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, the lone Democratic congressman from South Carolina, backed him just ahead of his state’s primary contest. Biden had lost in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, but won South Carolina — and ultimately, the White House.

The Michigan lesson

While Michigan would join the early states under Biden’s proposal, it did see some pushback among Democrats — and that opposition could foreshadow resistance California might receive if it attempted to move its presidential primary even sooner.

For example, David McDonald, a longtime DNC member, speculated the promotion of larger states, like Michigan, early in the primary season could “effectively (create) a bias toward certain kinds of candidates,” he told Politico.

And in a recent memo to DNC members, Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chair Ken Martin suggested candidates would skip other early states just to focus on Michigan because of its large amount of delegates. (Of note, Minnesota also made a play to be an early Midwest state to replace Iowa on the nominating contest calendar.)

The thought is that states with larger media markets could be more beneficial to candidates with heftier war chests, ultimately placing “even more of a premium on early fundraising and less of an emphasis on traditional voter contact,” Schnur added.

“Even if California wanted to be one of the first few states, it’s difficult to see how either party would allow it,” he said. “If Michigan got that (pushback), what would they say about us?”

Four of the five states (with South Carolina being the exception) kicking off the presidential primary are considered battleground states — giving the Democratic candidate an early opportunity to lay the groundwork for the general election.

DNC chair Jaime Harrison said the new slate of early-voting states will need to show they are working toward moving their primaries to those dates by early next year or risk losing their place. Some state legislatures set primary dates while others have their secretaries of state or directors of their state parties do it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Source: Orange County Register

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