The full Democratic National Committee (DNC) will vote in February on the Biden proposal to switch its FITN presidential primary from New Hampshire to South Carolina – from a state of 1.3 million to one four times higher, from a state with one city barely over 100,000 to one with at least three, from a state a candidate can tour in a day to one three times the size, from a state where no media market dominates to one where the only effective way to reach all voters is money-driven mass media, and from a state with the nation’s highest primary participation to a state that is only 18th. The main reason given for the change: “Diversity reflective of the nation as a whole.”
Let’s look at that. True, as much as 89 percent of the New Hampshire electorate is White. In the nation as a whole, it is 62 percent. But White participation in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic primary was only 16.4 percent, hardly “reflective of the nation.” Moreover, in South Carolina, anybody can vote in the Democratic primary. Republicans can sabotage the process in favor of a candidate they are confident could be beaten in the general. That can’t happen in New Hampshire, where the Democratic primary is only open to Democrats and independents. Furthermore, in New Hampshire, 44 percent of the electorate is independent, so the results indeed capture the mood of unenrolled voters in swing states, of which New Hampshire is a charter member.
Conversely, South Carolina has never been a swing state. It voted solidly for the party of its leading racist senator, Strom Thurmond, in the 40s and 50s while he was a Democrat, and again in the 60s through 80s when he was a Republican, with the exception that it went with the third party “Dixiecrats” instead of Truman or Dewey in 1948 because “Boss” Thurmond was that party’s candidate. True to form, South Carolinians continue to follow the leader. Today their Democratic “party boss” is Jim Clyburn. Polls for the 2020 South Carolina primary indicated a close race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, but when Clyburn announced he was choosing Biden the race was over. No number of handshakes and personal appearances at churches, diners, and coffee shops could change that.
Not so in New Hampshire. In 2016, every powerful elected Democrat in the state was with Hillary Clinton. They lined up at rallies to endorse her, urging voters to follow their lead. She lost by 22 points! The party did not then take the hint that swing voters no longer wanted her style of centrist politics, so they ganged up to thwart the Sanders juggernaut throughout the country, alienating enough progressives and independents to deliver the general election to Donald Trump.
But what has the New Hampshire Democratic primary actually delivered in its history? Well, in 2008, it made clear that the country was ready for either a Black or a woman, as Hillary and Barack Obama came within two percentage points of each other at the top of the pack in the largest turnout to date. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Hillary had led Obama in the polls by double digits as late as December, but after the January 8th New Hampshire vote affirming the viability of a Black candidate in a predominantly White state, those polls flipped. Obama then won South Carolina by a decisive margin and became the candidate of destiny. But the largely Black electorate wasn’t ready to give it to him before that, not even after he won the Iowa caucus. Arguably, had South Carolina voted first, Obama would have lost by those December double-digit poll margins, donors would have abandoned him for failing to win a Black state, and Hillary would have won the nomination, giving progressives and independents little reason to come out in the general.
Who else did the New Hampshire Democratic primary give us? Most certainly, President Bill Clinton would have been out of the race after the horrible publicity regarding extramarital affairs and draft dodging had not New Hampshire made him “The Comeback Kid” on the strength of a strong second-place showing. And who wouldn’t have preferred New Hampshire’s Democratic choice, the eventual nominee for president in 2000, Al Gore, who would have ascended to the White House had a Republican U.S. Supreme Court not stopped the Florida recount to hand it to George W. Bush. Who else but New Hampshire would likely have picked the obscure peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, from a pack of unknown wannabes, who is widely regarded internationally as a transformative president?
New Hampshire overcame the national religious backlash to propel the candidacy of our first Roman Catholic president in 1960 and later bucked the trend by refusing to rubber stamp the reelection of LBJ in 1968, allowing a strong enough showing from anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy that Johnson, a winner by the largest margin in history just four years prior, dropped out. New Hampshire’s Democratic primary has often led the nation in either its choice of candidate or political agenda. That’s why the DNC fears it.
Until Biden’s 5th place showing in 2020, no one had ever become president in the modern era without either winning, or coming in a strong second, in their party’s New Hampshire primary. Perhaps most strikingly, Biden, who after being handed the lead from Clyburn’s South Carolina in 2020, transformed himself into a near progressive from that point on, adopting much of the agenda that the New Hampshire Democratic Primary had set out by endorsing Sanders twice. After all, he most certainly was made aware of the exit polls coming out of the South Carolina primary. They demonstrated that, despite voters falling in line with “Boss” Clyburn’s choice, they were decisively on the side of Sanders’ positions.
Biden is nothing if not a good learner and was determined not to repeat Hillary’s previous failure to budge from the center. He saw up close that New Hampshire Democrats and independents, in yet another historic turnout, had awarded the overwhelming majority of votes to candidates with a progressive agenda, led by a Jew from Brooklyn and an openly gay man.
Nonetheless, New Hampshire is significantly behind the national average in its proportion of both Jews and LBGTQs, further disproving the presumption that “reflective diversity” in the New Hampshire Democratic electorate is essential to avoid ethnic, racial, gender, or other bias in the results. As for the failure of Black candidates to gain traction there in 2020, that had more to do with the fact that Kamala Harris changed positions with every debate, Cory Booker broke his own mold by playing to the center, and Julian Castro didn’t show up. Meanwhile, Black liberal Deval Patrick was actually stirring more excitement than any of them until he abandoned the race to support his ill wife. Thus, as Obama demonstrated in 2008, race is not a limiting factor for us.
Conversely, the real bias being unveiled here is that of the centrist DNC leadership, which, because of its own prejudices, and the projections arising therefrom, does not want a progressive New York Jew or a married gay man to be its nominee – or any progressive for that matter – and it plans to go to great lengths to ensure that doesn’t happen again, like giving kingmaker power to a centrist “party boss” with a manipulable primary electorate, while making sure that the first battle takes place in a large state where money, media, and party control are determinative, foreclosing the possibility that a progressive can ever again buck their power to carry the day by attending back yard cookouts and neighborhood gatherings.
The DNC threatens to deny our delegates a seat at the convention if we insist on holding the first primary and deny a place in the debates to all candidates who participate. But New Hampshire’s clout at the convention is negligible anyway, and who is going to watch a DNC debate when the early leaders out of New Hampshire are holding the real debate on another channel? The only consequence of such an attempt to usurp our tradition will be that the DNC will have revealed to the nation just how out-of-step and ineffectual it really is.
Biden, if he runs again, will probably do respectably here, as Congresswoman Annie Kuster noted just this week because Democrats appreciate his record of accomplishment in overcoming the resistance of two wayward Senate Democrats to get a few things done, but as the “Don’t Run Joe” progressives here are handily pointing out, after what we Democrats expect to be a blue tidal wave in 2024, a centrist president will become a stick in the mud to the progressive agenda favored by most Democrats on climate action, universal health care, student loans, and other priorities. Indeed, if we will hold it they will come – Democratic candidates of all stripes – to make their case in our living rooms and back porches because we have proven that anybody of any race, gender, religion, ethnicity, or endowment has an even shot at being elevated to the forefront of national attention by pitching their best case to our discerning voters who have demonstrated time and again that they have their finger on the pulse of the Democratic electorate. And Joe, whose wife, and whose heart, just aren’t really in it this time, will see the writing on the wall and drop out, lest he is jettisoned into a sure-fire rubber stamping in South Carolina, setting him up for a risky re-election bid in the end. And there’s nothing the DNC can do about it!