Move over Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are now members of the Democratic Party's "early nominators" club.
By adding new states to its early roster of presidential nominating contests, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) aims to add racial and geographic diversity to the selection process.
Under the plan, adopted over the weekend in Chicago, Iowa will still hold the very first event – party caucuses – and New Hampshire will keep its traditional first primary in the nation. But Nevada will squeeze its caucuses into the eight-day gap between Iowa and New Hampshire, and South Carolina will hold primaries as soon as a week after New Hampshire. If all the state parties cooperate, these contests could end up taking place in a time frame as tight as 15 days in January 2008.
The new schedule reflects a long-held concern in national party circles that Iowa and New Hampshire are both more white than the nation as a whole, and that their disproportionate clout in determining Democratic presidential nominees was giving blacks and Hispanics short shrift. Nevada, the fastest-growing state in the country, has more Hispanics than the national norm; South Carolina has a large African-American population.
"It's an opportunity for the candidates to speak in a broader way to Democrats across the country," said Alexis Herman, co-chair of the DNC's rules committee, according to the Associated Press.
But New Hampshire Democrats are unhappy over the loss of clout, and it's not clear that they will go along. Aware that this change could be coming, they have long discussed the possibility of holding their primaries in early January 2008, or even in late 2007. To discourage this from happening, the national Democrats adopted a plan that would penalize any candidate who campaigns in a state that defies the new system: Delegates won in such a "rogue" state would not count toward nomination at the summer convention.
If New Hampshire bucks the new system and moves its primary to an earlier date, some candidates may decide the loss of those delegates – a relatively small number, given the state's size – in exchange for the publicity of winning the contest is a worthwhile gamble. If New Hampshire goes its own way, other states may opt to do the same.
But in the end, all the discussion about scheduling undergirds a larger question: Will the plan produce a better nominee – one more capable of winning the presidency?
"It's hard to tell," says John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron in Ohio. "If you look back at the past manipulations of the primary season, by both parties, they have often not produced the desired results."
In 1988, he notes, Southern Democrats set up "Super Tuesday" – a single day of primaries across the South – to boost the region's clout in the nominating process, in the hope that then-Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee would win. Michael Dukakis, then-governor of Massachusetts, ended up securing the nomination.
Professor Green also points out that it's too early to predict the dynamics of the race for the 2008 nominations. Based on potential candidates' actions now – who's working to build a national coalition, fundraising base, and staff, and who's already visiting New Hampshire and Iowa – it's easy to see who's thinking of running but it's not certain who ultimately will.
"If a strong liberal wins in Iowa, that could create a dynamic in which South Carolina and Nevada don't even matter," says Green.
By setting up a packed schedule of early contests, the Democratic Party appears to be forcing candidates to hopscotch around the country, which would make it difficult for them to engage in the kind of living-room politics that became the hallmark of Iowa and New Hampshire. It's possible, therefore, that some candidates will choose to forgo some of those first four states, and gamble on an attempt to win big in just one or two.