SC poised to jump from ‘First in the South’ to ‘First in the Nation’ after Democratic calendar shakeup

A major shakeup in Democratic politics has South Carolina poised to be the first state in the nation to select the party’s nominee for president in 2024.
Published: Dec. 5, 2022 at 10:58 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 5, 2022 at 11:10 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - A major shakeup in Democratic politics has South Carolina poised to be the first state in the nation to select the party’s nominee for president in 2024.

A powerful Democratic National Committee panel, the Rules and Bylaws Committee, voted Friday to usurp Iowa as the traditional first state and replace it with South Carolina — at President Joe Biden’s behest.

The full DNC still must officially approve this new schedule in a vote that will likely come early next year, but the Rules and Bylaws Committee’s sign-off is a strong endorsement for the Palmetto State’s role in Democratic politics.

“It is an exciting opportunity that can’t be oversold or overstated,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson said.

The new schedule gives South Carolina Democrats the first crack at selecting their party’s 2024 presidential nominee on Feb. 3, followed by two other traditional early states, Nevada and New Hampshire, both on Feb. 6 and two newcomers, Georgia and Michigan, on Feb. 13 and Feb. 27, respectively.

The DNC decided to revamp its traditional calendar — in which Iowa led the pack, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — after the disastrous 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses were plagued by confusion and late results. The caucus format had also been sharply criticized for being inaccessible compared to a primary.

Democrats pledged to prioritize up to five states in an overhaul this year based on diversity, competitiveness, and feasibility, and more than a dozen states and Puerto Rico applied.

Robertson made South Carolina’s case to the DNC in June to be among that group of five, alongside long-serving Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn and Carol Fowler, who represents South Carolina on the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

The chair said South Carolina met the criteria through its relatively inexpensive cost of living and media markets — important to prevent the eventual nominee’s campaign from going bankrupt before the general election — ease of travel from one side of the state to the other, and the presence of Democratic voters throughout the state, not just concentrated in one city or region.

Robertson also noted how the South Carolina legislature passed a new law in a bipartisan manner earlier this year that established no-excuse-needed, early, in-person voting, including the option to offer during party presidential primaries, at a time he said other states are restricting voting access.

Clyburn highlighted those points as well in a statement released in response to Biden’s recommendation last week that South Carolina slide into the first-in-the-nation slot.

In a letter to the DNC, Biden listed his top priority for the new calendar was giving voters of color a greater voice earlier in the schedule.

“For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process. We rely on these voters in elections but have not recognized their importance in our nominating calendar. It is time to stop taking these voters for granted, and time to give them a louder and earlier voice in the process,” Biden wrote.

Clyburn said in his statement that Biden’s recommendation shows the president recognizes “Democrats’ most loyal constituents.” After finishing fourth, fifth, and a distance second in the first three early states in 2020, Black voters in South Carolina and Clyburn’s endorsement are largely credited with resurrecting the former vice president’s floundering campaign, delivering him a landslide victory in South Carolina that propelled him to the Democratic nomination en route to the White House.

Robertson echoed Clyburn’s sentiments, while saying, like the Congressman, he did not expect his state to leap to the top slot.

“I think that we can’t overstate that because the African-American community gave Joe Biden his second life,” Robertson said. “So we’re all surprised, we’re all ecstatic, we’re all excited.”

Iowa had held the first-in-the-nation position for both Republicans and Democrats since the 1970s.

With that spot has come the greatest focus from candidates, who have typically spent elevated amounts of money and time in Iowa, building up a campaign infrastructure several months to over a year before the caucuses.

How much attention South Carolina gets in this new position will heavily depend on if Biden himself runs for re-election in 2024 or if he opts to not seek a second term, opening the Democratic primary that year.

“I think no matter what President Biden decides to do, it’s still a big deal because it does put South Carolina kind of first in the priority ranking,” University of South Carolina political science professor emeritus Bob Oldendick said. “Now, the impact is going to be different if he’s the incumbent running or not. If he decides to run, then it’s probably a lesser impact.”

Biden also recommended the party reevaluate its calendar every four years.

If the president runs again in 2024, Oldendick believes it is likelier Democrats keep the new calendar for at least 2028, when there would be an open primary, instead of rebuilding it.

“It would be like, ‘What was the point of doing that?’ and raise questions about the whole process that we’re going through now if there wasn’t the intent to kind of keep this as the calendar for a couple cycles,” he said.

Robertson believes any future changes to the calendar will heavily depend on who sits in the White House and who chairs the DNC. Current DNC Chair Jaime Harrison also hails from South Carolina.

South Carolina voters have taken pride in their ability to historically back their party’s eventually nominee since joining the early states in 2008.

But in the first position, Iowans have traditionally held a different viewpoint on their job, which they see as winnowing down crowded fields to a few frontrunners with just “three tickets out of Iowa” viable in subsequent states. Biden’s fourth-place finish in 2020 bucked that trend.

Oldendick said the role of South Carolinians — or voters in other states that could be selected to go first in future years — will likely shift to be similar to Iowans’ field-narrowing job as opposed to selecting nominees outright.

While Democrats in South Carolina have been promoted to this new position, most of the state’s voters are Republicans, who will have an open primary in 2024.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee voted to stick with the current calendar, keeping Iowa first, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

“It doesn’t matter what Democrats do with their schedule. South Carolina is proudly First in the South for the Republican primary, and we’re more than satisfied that it will stay that way,” SCGOP Chair Drew McKissick said in a statement.

But Robertson said South Carolina’s bump up on the Democratic side will benefit the entire state.

“If you get 10 to 15 people running for president of the United States, they’re raising half-a-billion to a billion dollars,” he said. “We want that spent in South Carolina. We want it creating an infrastructure here. We want it helping local candidates and increasing the dialogue between people across the political spectrum.”