WASHINGTON – Democrats have undertaken a massive overhaul of the presidential nominating calendar, fundamentally rethinking the way their party picks presidents in an effort to give voice to underrepresented groups and gain an edge as they seek the White House in 2024 and beyond.
For five decades, Iowa has been the place presidential candidates of every persuasion have traveled as they seek to woo voters and catapult their campaigns into the national limelight. Iowans have enjoyed the outsized attention and elevated status that comes with that place, closely guarding their prized post at the front of the nominating calendar.
But after a high-profile failure to produce accurate and timely results in 2020, members of the Democratic National Committee appear set on booting Iowa from its perch.
In April, the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to open an application process allowing any state to compete to be part of that early window.
Up for grabs are as many as five early voting spots, and state Democratic officials from around the country showed up en masse in Washington, D.C., last week to vie for the chance to snag one of them.
The four traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — submitted applications and were invited to make in-person presentations to the committee. Twelve other states and Puerto Rico also were invited to make their pitches in person.
Democrats arrived ready to woo committee members with professionally produced promo videos, goodie bags filled with local tchotchkes, glossy pamphlets and, in Minnesota’s case, an entrance timed to Prince’s hit song “Let’s Go Crazy.” Each argued that their state is best suited to go first.
“Just to give you an idea of how important this was for me, I left a meeting in the Roosevelt Room with the president of the United States to be here on time,” Delaware Gov. John Carney told the committee.
So what makes the perfect early state?
Committee members say they're looking for the right mix of diversity, general election competitiveness and logistical prowess. Any early state needs to be able to legally — and quickly — move its primary contest, and it must be able to pull off a clean election under intense pressure and scrutiny, they say.
Throughout the presentations, the committee asked questions about the cost of campaigning in each state, paying particular attention to the price of TV ads in a state's respective media markets.
As the committee shapes the early calendar, it will ensure each of four geographic regions are represented.
The most competitive region is the Midwest, currently represented by Iowa, but where states such as Michigan and Minnesota have caught the committee's eye. Nevada in the West and New Hampshire in the Northeast could be key contenders for first-in-the-nation status after both states made their cases Wednesday. In the South, Georgia and Texas argued they could deliver a much-needed constituency to the Democratic Party.
The committee will weigh all the proposals at a meeting in July, before proposing a slate of states in early August.
Here’s a look at every state and territory that presented and what they sold as their biggest assets — plus some of the possible pitfalls committee members raised about their applications.
Iowa has come under fire from critics who argue that its population, which is overwhelmingly white, is not representative of the nation at large. Iowa is the sixth-least diverse state, according to U.S. Census data. And its high-profile failure to report accurate, timely results from its 2020 caucuses undermined the public’s confidence in the state’s ability to hold such a consequential contest.
But the state contains pockets of diversity, particularly in its larger cities. State officials argued it will be critical for the party to reach out to rural voters, like those in Iowa, to continue winning nationally. Like New Hampshire, Iowa’s history of hosting presidential candidates for five decades has created a deep cultural infrastructure around attending and supporting the caucuses, they said.
In a broader pitch to keep its place at the front of the calendar, Iowa Democrats unveiled sweeping changes to their caucus process in an effort to alleviate concerns that caucuses are inherently exclusive and create too many barriers to participation.
Illinois leaders framed the state as the heart of the Midwest, saying it most closely mirrors the demographics of the entire country on measures such as race, education, income and age.
As committee members snacked on Chicago's famed Garrett popcorn, the presenters painted Illinois as a testing ground for Democrats that has flipped several seats blue in recent years. They also reminded the committee that the state launched former President Barack Obama's political career. State House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch said that the Democratic trifecta in the state would ensure no Republican roadblocks to moving the primary.
But committee members questioned if campaigning in the state would be cost prohibitive to some candidates due to the Chicago media market. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a member of the committee, questioned how local issues with the Chicago Teachers Union would play out on a national scale and wondered whether they would overshadow the election.
Michigan's presenters pitched the state as the most diverse battleground state, home to key demographic groups that Democrats need to win the presidency, including labor groups, college students, and white working class and educated suburban voters.
The delegation emphasized the large number of Black voters and Muslim voters, both in rural communities and around Detroit. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell stressed the importance of Democrats campaigning in union halls, and the group highlighted the manufacturing focus and automobile industry in the state.
"We move American people, we move American products, we move presidential candidates forward to the next level," said Democratic Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II.
Committee members questioned the cost of the state's seven media markets, and whether Republicans in the state would sign on to moving up the primary.
Minnesota is 70% white, making it the 14th-least diverse state in the country, according to U.S. Census data. But Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, argued that there is more to consider about diversity.
“There are states that are more diverse on paper,” he said. “But what matters is making sure those communities are showing up and participating at the ballot box, they're participating and running for office, showing up and participating by volunteering, showing up and participating by being involved in our party. All that's true in Minnesota.”
Minnesota Democrats touted their massive voter turnout as a key reason to elevate the state into the early voting window. In the 2020 general election, the state tallied record turnout of about 80% — the highest percentage in the country, a distinction the state has largely held for the last three federal election years.
But under state law, Minnesota’s Republican Party chairman must also agree to move up the GOP presidential primary. Committee members questioned whether Minnesota Democrats could secure that support by August, when the committee plans to vote on calendar changes.
Connecticut Democrats argued that their state’s small size would be an asset to presidential candidates who want to maximize their retail politics. Within a few hours of driving, they said, candidates can reach urban, suburban and rural parts of the state. Proximity to New York City is also an asset, they said.
In its population of about 3.5 million residents, the state ranks about in the middle of U.S. states in terms of diversity, and party leaders said Connecticut's population closely mirrors the country overall.
Delaware officials said the state's small size, cheap media markets and deep voter involvement make it an ideal early state.
But committee member Elaine Kamarck questioned whether it would be wise to begin the 2024 process in Democratic President Joe Biden's home state. "Favorite sons," she said, tend to skew the early nominating process. Other candidates likely wouldn't campaign there, fearing Biden would win overwhelmingly. And it could put Biden in a difficult position if he didn't surpass expectations there, she said.
"I think that while you've got a good story in the long run, I think in the short run, having 2024 start in Delaware is a big problem," Kamarck told the delegation.
Maryland’s leaders leaned into the state’s diversity in their pitch to DNC officials, noting that 51% of the state’s population is nonwhite. “No other state on the East Coast can match us on our biggest strength, which is our diversity,” state party chair Yvette Lewis said.
But some committee members questioned whether Maryland, which consistently votes for Democrats, is a good testing ground for presidential candidates. The committee has said it prefers to seek out competitive general election battleground states where on-the-ground organizing could help swing a November contest in Democrats’ favor.
New Hampshire has been holding presidential primaries for more than 100 years, and the tradition is deeply ingrained in the state’s voters and in the way presidential campaigns operate, state leaders said. They argued its small size, history of retail politics and relatively cheap media markets make it an ideal launching pad for presidential candidates.
With just four electoral votes, New Hampshire doesn't play an outsize role in the general election for president, but state leaders highlighted competitive races, including U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan's 2022 reelection bid.
But New Hampshire's lack of diversity is a clear drawback for the committee. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 87% of the state’s population is white, making it the fourth-least diverse state in the country, ahead of only Vermont, West Virginia and Maine.
Another complicating factor is the state law that directs New Hampshire's secretary of state to set the presidential primary ahead of any other "similar" contest. State officials made clear during their presentation that they intend to follow that state law. Committee members voiced concern that supplanting New Hampshire’s primaries with another state’s contest could introduce a level of unnecessary “chaos” to the calendar process.
"If you can run in New Jersey, you can run anywhere," said Gov. Phil Murphy, who joined other representatives in pitching the Garden State as a diverse, competitive and small state.
Presenters emphasized that New Jersey has the 11th-largest population and 9th-largest economy but is the fourth-smallest state by land size, and thus easy to navigate and travel for candidates in a short amount of time — though one committee member questioned the traffic and ability of candidates to get around the state.
The presentation argued that New Jersey's media market has the added benefit of reaching the entirety of the tri-state area, including battleground Pennsylvania, but members of the committee raised concerns about the cost for candidates as a result.
State Democratic Party 1st Vice Chair Howard Chou argued that Colorado is geographically and economically diverse. He pointed to the large number of unaffiliated voters in the state as a robust population of swing voters that Democrats could target.
Members of the Rules and Bylaws committee, including former DNC Chair Donna Brazile, questioned how quickly Colorado could calculate election results given the large amount of vote by mail — a point of concern given the delayed reporting of results from the last Iowa caucus.
While some other states asked the committee simply to be considered in the early window, Nevada officials made an aggressive and explicit push for first, arguing the state checks off all the committee’s requirements.
Nevada is the third-most diverse state in the country, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Officials also touted the state's broad voter access laws, which allow for same-day voter registration, two weeks of early voting and a universal vote by mail process. With two media markets that reach 98% of voters, they said, Nevada is an accessible place for candidates to campaign.
But Nevada is the seventh-largest state in the country by area. And with roughly 75% of its population concentrated in Clark County, home to Las Vegas, some committee members questioned whether presidential candidates would ever leave Nevada’s cities to campaign in the state’s more rural areas.
Washington Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski centered her state's pitch around Washington's Asian American and Pacific Islander and Native American populations. The state has the largest AAPI population of any of the states under consideration, and a larger Native American population than Nevada or Colorado, Podlodowski said. The presentation also emphasized that Washington has more union workers than those two states combined.
The state transitioned from a caucus system to a primary in 2020, and had a six-fold increase in turnout. Members questioned how quickly results would be tabulated given the prominence of vote by mail in the state.
Georgia "reflects the diversity that has been championed by the Democratic Party," said U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who led the state's pitch and said that Georgia will soon become a minority-majority state.
Former state party executive director Scott Hogan argued that choosing Georgia as an early state would demonstrate the party's commitment to the voters who helped deliver the battleground state in the 2020 presidential election and the U.S. Senate majority in the 2021 runoffs. The presentation also touted the work of Democrats in the state on voter protection.
Members of the committee expressed concerns about the restrictive voting legislation passed in the state, and the possibility that Republicans will continue to hold the Secretary of State's office and win back U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock's seat in November.
Oklahoma Democratic Party Chair Alicia Andrews argued that the committee should not ignore non-battleground states. No Democrat has won the presidential race in Oklahoma since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
But members questioned what assurances Democrats have that Republicans in the state would support an early primary. "To be 100% honest with you, I don't know," Andrews said. "I can't promise that they won't backstab me."
South Carolina's presentation was helmed by U.S. Rep. and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, whose endorsement of Biden is credited with saving the president's campaign.
State Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson touted the state's diversity — 65% of people who voted in the 2020 primary were not white, he said, and 62% of Black South Carolinians live in rural areas.
The presentation also highlighted that the most expensive media market in the state is more than $100,000 cheaper than that in neighboring North Carolina or Georgia. Like other red states that presented, Robertson argued that the presidential primary helps Democrats running in South Carolina, pointing to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison's campaign for U.S. Senate.
One member of the committee questioned if Democrats are mobilizing the growing Latino population. "The fact is in a state like South Carolina we can always improve on that," Robertson said.
Texas leaders argued that an early window primary election would accelerate gains that Democrats have made across Texas and help turn the state from red to blue. “We have 40 electoral votes,” said state party chair Gilberto Hinojosa. “And everyone knows that the day that Texas turns blue, it is mathematically impossible for the Republicans to elect a president in the United States."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Texas is the fifth-most diverse state in the country, and people of color make up a majority of the population.
But committee members noted that Texas Republicans would be likely to move up their primary process to match the Democrats, possibly canceling out the organizing and enthusiasm benefits the party could gain from holding an early primary. Texas can also be an overwhelmingly expensive state to campaign in because of its size and 22 media markets.
"It may come as a surprise to many Puerto Rico is applying," said Puerto Rico Democratic Party Chair Charles Rodríguez, noting the lack of federal representation and the fact it is not a state.
Picking Puerto Rico, he argued, would generate discussion of Hispanic and Latino issues and send a message to those voters both in Puerto Rico and living in key battleground states like Florida.
While the territory plays a role in the nominating process, voters do not get a say in the general election — a major hurdle to Puerto Rico's efforts to join the early window.
Dylan Wells is a Congress, Campaigns, and Politics Reporter at USA Today. Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Des Moines Register.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who should lead Democrats' presidential voting? Read each state's case