The D.N.C. Has a Primary Problem

Last December, the 30-odd members of the Democratic Party’s rules and bylaws committee filed in to the Omni Shoreham, the glittering resort hotel that once hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural ball. All of the Democrats, many of them gray-haired habitués of the rubber-chicken circuit, knew they had come to Washington to hash out, after months of debate, what the presidential-primary calendar would look like come 2024.

The order in which the states vote has defined American politics since the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter rocketed to the presidency on the strength of his performance in the Iowa caucuses. Always Iowa first, then New Hampshire — which zealously guarded its status as the first-in-the-nation actual primary, luring all future presidents to the rickety diner back rooms and high school gymnasiums of the flinty Northern state with a streak of independence. Joe Biden performed terribly in each of those contests in 2020, hitting his stride only in larger states with fewer white voters. It was now understood that the curious caucus system — voters clustering on frost-tinged church and library floors to choose candidates — needed to be retired, particularly after Iowa failed to tally the vote in a timely manner.

So Iowa would be demoted, as would tolerance for any kind of caucus. New Hampshire, perhaps, would vote first, along with Nevada and its increasing Latino population. That seemed like plenty of change as Biden, who will turn 81 this November, seeks a breezier path to a second term as president.

Instead, the co-chair of the rules and bylaws committee — and the grandson of Franklin Roosevelt — made a different announcement.

“I move a resolution, which will be displayed on the screen,” James Roosevelt Jr. said, “which grants waivers to Rule 12-A, conditional upon the outlined stipulations for a state-run primary in South Carolina on Feb. 3, 2024; New Hampshire and Nevada on Feb. 6; Georgia on Feb. 13. … ”

The room offered no immediate public reaction to the legalese. But privately, some members were astounded. “Everyone was shocked,” one told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the White House. “We would have to vote for it anyway, because the feeling was you’re either with the president or against him.”

A few members of the Democratic National Committee had known what was coming — but only because Biden-administration officials called them on the phone mere hours after Biden himself sent a letter to the rules and bylaws committee, on the first day of December, outlining his demand for a primary calendar that ensured that “voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window.” Biden called Black voters the “backbone” of the party, though he didn’t specifically mention South Carolina in his letter. It was left to his aides to tell the top-ranking D.N.C. members, including Roosevelt, that South Carolina was the new first-in-the-nation primary. It had been decreed, and so it would be done.

But New Hampshire, the state that prides itself on its Live Free or Die motto, has declared that it will vote first anyway, setting up a clash with the D.N.C. that could widen to publicly embarrass Biden — who, assuming he coordinates with the D.N.C. on its new calendar, would not be on the New Hampshire ballot in this scenario — handing the incumbent president a shocking statewide defeat.

Biden has the entire party establishment on his side. The D.N.C. has formally endorsed him, which means that the organization, in addition to rubber-stamping a primary calendar that is far more favorable to him, will not sponsor any debates. Normally, this wouldn’t matter much; incumbent presidents enjoy such deference. But Biden is already the oldest president in history and would be 86 if he finishes a second term. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Democrats don’t want him to run again (though this doesn’t mean they won’t vote for him). His approval ratings consistently hover around 40 percent.

At the same time, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a son of the slain senator and attorney general and a nephew of the slain president, has polled at 20 percent nationally among Democratic voters and has begun a campaign blitz in New Hampshire, where voters and politicians alike are aggrieved over the D.N.C.’s revision of the primary calendar, with the secretary of state, David Scanlan, a Republican, calling the first-in-the-nation status a defining part of the state’s “culture.” It is also enshrined in state law. Iowa’s reaction has been more muted because there are so few Democrats of note left in the state after successive Republican electoral waves. Still, Iowa Democrats may sync their caucuses with the Republicans anyway, defying the D.N.C.

Kennedy was once widely respected as an environmentalist; he has since drawn condemnation for his anti-vaccine advocacy, taste for conspiracy theories and incendiary statements — including invoking “Hitler Germany” in a speech about American vaccine mandates — but may hold appeal for the large base of libertarian voters in New Hampshire. (Marianne Williamson, the author and spiritual figure who dropped out of the 2020 race, is running again as well.) Democrats there are alarmed.

“The reality is that New Hampshire is going to keep the first-in-the-nation primary,” Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a longtime D.N.C. member, told me, “and the question only is whether or not the president is going to put his name on the ballot. They’re trying to come after New Hampshire, but it’s not going to be successful. So why go through all that pain?”

D. Arnie Arnesen, a left-leaning New Hampshire talk-show host and former Democratic state representative, understands the arguments against her state: “We’re too white, too rich, too privileged,” she conceded. New Hampshire has two Democratic senators but a Republican-controlled state government (including a governor, Chris Sununu, who once considered his own presidential challenge this cycle). On the question of the 2024 primaries, however, Arnesen sides with Buckley. “They knew the Republicans were going to Iowa and New Hampshire anyway. Why change now? There’s no upside. Not one iota of benefit for Joe Biden. Nothing. No benefit to Joe, no benefit to the Democrats. They shot themselves in the foot.”

As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Jaime Harrison, a 47-year-old who rose to his position two years ago from statewide politics in South Carolina and whose profile has risen along with his state’s, has to try to play mediator between angered state Democrats and a White House that expects fealty from the national organization. For now, Harrison is sanguine about all of it. The New Hampshire situation. Biden’s advanced age. The party’s declining share of many demographic groups, especially Latino voters and those without college degrees. A dire Senate map, where Democratic incumbents in Montana, Ohio and West Virginia could fall, along with the formerly Democratic senator in Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, plunging Democrats into an indefinite minority.

In Harrison’s office at D.N.C. headquarters, which looks out on the dome of the Capitol, there hangs a portrait of Biden with Jim Clyburn, the 82-year-old South Carolina congressman whose endorsement and championing of Biden in 2020 is credited with rescuing his candidacy. Displayed over Harrison’s desk is a vintage sign for Ron Brown, who in 1989 became the first Black chairman of the D.N.C. Brown and Clyburn are both heroes to Harrison, who was Clyburn’s intern and, later, his director of floor operations when the congressman served as majority whip. A lucrative private-sector career followed as a lobbyist at the Podesta Group. With Clyburn’s blessing, he became chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Harrison then ran a very high-profile, extremely expensive and ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 2020 for the Senate seat held by Lindsey Graham. Now Clyburn’s protégé heads a D.N.C. that has put their home state, where Harrison still lives with his family, quite literally first.

Harrison insisted that Clyburn never advocated for South Carolina as the very first state — only for it to retain its status as the first of the Southern states. “I think, for him, he always wanted South Carolina — and I felt the same way — we enjoyed and took a lot of pride in being the first in the South,” Harrison told me on a June afternoon, sitting beneath that portrait. “People thought early on, Oh, God, Jaime’s the chair of the D.N.C., so therefore he’s going to put his finger on the scale for South Carolina. And everybody will tell you, I was evenhanded in this. The only thing that I wanted was that South Carolina would remain, because I think it’s earned its spot as an early state.” But South Carolina, of course, moved up, and Harrison is now thrilled. “National Geographic said that 90 percent of African Americans can trace one of their ancestors to South Carolina. In our primary, 50 to 60 percent of the people who vote in the Democratic primary will be Black folks. Think about how powerful this is, that the descendants of those enslaved people will be the very first people in this country to determine the most powerful person on the face of this planet. That’s transformative.”

A few dissidents in the D.N.C., made up of New Hampshirites and some Iowans, progressives and union members, see it differently: Biden is elevating a state that a Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t carried since 1976. Beyond Clyburn, there are few Democrats of note in South Carolina, and the state has the lowest percentage of union membership in America. Progressive candidates could, cycle after cycle, meet a wall of opposition there.

The persistent quandary, which no version of the primary calendar could resolve, is how to account for the various long-range challenges of the Democratic Party. A first-in-the-nation South Carolina primary lends Black moderates, a pivotal Democratic constituency, the kind of clout that many believe they deserve. White rural voters — the sort who need to be courted in Iowa and New Hampshire — have not proved loyal to the Democratic brand. But there are only so many of them that Democrats can afford to lose in a general election. New Hampshire, which Biden carried by less than 10 points in 2020, is not guaranteed to be eternally blue.

For Harrison, South Carolina’s premier placement will mean that the many men and women who dream of commanding the Oval Office will need to pay attention to completely different issues and concerns. “Now, instead of talking about ethanol in Iowa, we’re going to be talking about the infant-mortality rate in the Black community,” he said. “It changes the agenda. It changes the conversation. And now presidential candidates will then be making promises to those communities.”

On a summer day in the late 1990s, Don Fowler, the chairman of the D.N.C., needed help. The South Carolinian and former head of the state party had bushels of juicy peaches sent up from farmers back home, and he wanted the president of the United States to sample some. None of his interns were free. He queried the most powerful Democrat in his state: Would he have a hand to spare?

Clyburn, the Charleston congressman, did. “They sent me,” Jaime Harrison recalled, beaming at the memory. “It was one of the most amazing moments of my life at that point, to have these bags of peaches that I’m going to deliver to Bill Clinton, right?”

Harrison, peaches in tow, trekked from the Capitol to the White House. He ended up in the East Wing — no face-to-face with the president — but the journey stoked his ambition, which he says has been realized with the position he has held since Biden selected him. “If I don’t do anything else in politics for the rest of my life, I have hit a great point, being the D.N.C chair.”

On my June visit, a wall in the D.N.C. lobby featured portraits honoring the highest-ranking Democrats: Biden; Vice President Kamala Harris; Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader; the head of the Senate’s campaign arm, Senator Gary Peters of Michigan; Jaime Harrison. But the wall seemed to have been frozen in pre-midterm 2022: Nancy Pelosi, not Hakeem Jeffries, the new House minority leader, had a portrait on the wall, as did Sean Patrick Maloney, the New York Democrat who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Not only is Maloney no longer the D.C.C.C. chair, but he’s not in Congress at all. He lost his re-election bid, one of the seats with which the Democrats lost their majority.

At the core of its mission, the D.N.C. raises and spends titanic sums of money on organizing and messaging for political contests: more than $300 million over the course of 2021 and 2022, leading up to the midterms. The committee is a constellation of various interests — activists, wealthy donors, state party chairs — that is more fractious than its Republican counterpart because of the sheer number of individuals who make up the 483-member national committee, which far outstrips the 168-member R.N.C. The Republican Party has had its own ideological struggles, but the once-insurgent Trump wing has come to largely command party business, with Ronna McDaniel, a Trump ally, well into her seventh year as party chair.

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, amid lingering bitterness from progressives who felt that the D.N.C. had unfairly supported Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries and convention, Harrison was one of several Democrats who very publicly vied for the D.N.C. chairman title. He operated, though, on the periphery of that contest, as the ideological and institutional factions organized around two candidates: Tom Perez, Obama’s labor secretary; and Keith Ellison, a Minnesota congressman and Sanders supporter. With tacit backing from Obama, Perez narrowly won the vote of several hundred eligible D.N.C. members at the party’s meeting in Atlanta.

After Perez’s victory was announced, Ellison supporters erupted in anger, chanting, “Party for the people, not big money!” Perez placated them by naming Ellison deputy chairman. Under Perez’s leadership, a so-called Unity Reform Commission overhauled the superdelegate system, restricting their vote on the convention’s first ballot (the superdelegates, who are party elites, had operated like free agents, unaccountable to how their states actually voted). He also partnered with Howard Dean, the former D.N.C. chairman who was the architect of the party’s short-lived strategy to compete in all 50 states, to create the Democratic Data Exchange: a private company, mirroring Republican Party efforts, that allows various Democratic campaigns, committees, unions and other left-leaning groups to share the information they gather on voters.

Tom Perez and Keith Ellison in suits.
Tom Perez (right), former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Keith Ellison, former deputy chairman, in 2017.Branden Camp/Associated Press

Building on successes during the 2018 blue-wave year, the D.N.C. pumped more than $95 million into its midterm programs in 2022 — tripling its investment from 2018 and paying for as many as 35 campaign staff positions in Georgia, 42 in Michigan and 53 in Pennsylvania. The D.N.C. now pours more cash into state parties than it did during the Obama years and has established a “red state” fund that can add paid staff to Republican-dominated states in the hopes of growing the Democratic vote there in the years to come. Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who was born in Thailand, raised in Hawaii and is now a D.N.C. vice chair, hopes to raise more cash to improve Democratic organizing efforts with Asian Americans. “We’ve seen that when we don’t speak to that community, they can vote Republican like they did in New York,” she said, referring to the state-level results in the midterms. “You had Brooklyn switch over and elect Republican representatives.”

Asian American voters, as Duckworth noted, migrated significantly rightward last year, and not just in Brooklyn. The share of Latino voters supporting Democrats continues to slip, from 66 percent in 2018 to 57 percent in 2022, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the national electorate. Some analysts warn that the Latino voters who swung to Republicans in 2020 and sat out the 2022 midterms could buoy a Republican presidential contender. The white working class continues to defect from Democratic candidates, and there’s some evidence that culturally conservative nonwhite voters, once reflexive Democrats, are slowly sorting into the Republican coalition. From 2016 to 2020, Trump was able to grow his share of the Black vote, and over the last decade, almost every cohort of voters under 50 has shifted toward the right, belying predictions of a permanent Democratic hold on millennials.

Ruy Teixeira, a scholar who studies political demographics — and recently decamped from the liberal Center for American Progress to the conservative American Enterprise Institute — believes that Democrats, despite their recent victories, are losing too many working-class voters as they rush leftward on identity concerns at the expense of class. “They are a party very dependent on the college-educated vote,” Teixeira told me. “In a way, Democrats were getting a premium among some nonwhite voters, getting way above the underlying ideology of voters in terms of their support. That’s changing.”

The D.N.C. will learn, soon enough, if its confidence heading into the next election is warranted. The 2022 midterm results could have been, as Harrison contends, a reflection of Biden’s policy accomplishments and the savvy of the party’s myriad investments. Or the outcome might have been because of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which galvanized outraged Democratic voters, and the many extreme and inexperienced candidates who upended Republican primaries and then stumbled badly in the fall.

“I don’t think the building is on fire,” Harrison said confidently. The decline of the white working-class voter in the Democratic coalition could be reversed, Harrison argued, because Biden is the most “pro-union” president in recent years — the A.F.L.-C.I.O. endorsed him in June, and he appeared at rally with union workers in Philadelphia later that month — but many of those elusive working-class voters don’t belong to unions anymore. Latinos defecting to the right, Harrison said, could be won back by pointing out how cruel some Republican governors have been for busing and flying migrants north — never mind that not all Latinos who are American citizens have sympathy for those making illegal border crossings. Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York, who once deemed himself the “Biden of Brooklyn,” has castigated Biden’s response to the migrant crisis in unusually public criticism of the White House, declaring that his city is being “destroyed” by the large influx of asylum seekers.

Yet if voters only knew more about what Democrats have done for them, there would be no doubt about their mutual allegiance, according to Harrison. “We’re going to make sure they understand where the Democratic Party is, what our values are,” he said, “and that we are the only party that will fight for them.”

The results of 2022 were inarguably rosy, from a Democratic standpoint, defying historical precedent: The president’s party gained a seat in the Senate, won several high-profile governor’s races, flipped state legislatures and almost, despite forecasts of a red wave, retained control of the House. In Barack Obama’s first midterm as president, Republicans netted 63 seats in the House, the largest electoral shift since 1948. Democrats lost six Senate seats. The enormous majorities of the 2008 election had vanished, never to be regained.

The Obama era was particularly cataclysmic for Democrats on the state level. Republicans dominated a redistricting process that safeguarded their legislative majorities for much of the next decade; by 2016, the last full year of Obama’s presidency, Democrats had full control of just seven states. Even now, after the Democrats’ triumphant midterms, Republicans control 28 state legislatures to the Democrats’ 19. And it’s these state legislatures that decide much of the policy — taxes, education, transit — that impacts everyday American life.

The D.N.C. suffered under Obama, in part because he created his own political group, Organizing for Action, outside the aegis of the party. The group built a parallel structure that hoovered up donor cash. State party chairs were livid, believing that the group, which focused chiefly on the promotion of Obama’s policy agenda, deprived them of attention and dollars. Heading into 2020, the Democratic presidential contenders, including Biden, pledged not to create another extraparty organ.

Historically, Democratic presidents have undercut or ignored the D.N.C., especially compared with their Republican counterparts and their willingness to bolster the R.N.C. According to Daniel Galvin, a political-science professor at Northwestern University, every Democratic president in the second half of the 20th century — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton — raided funds meant for party building or shot down proposals to strengthen down-ballot campaigns. For many decades, Democrats enjoyed congressional and statehouse majorities that seemed unbreakable, Galvin argues in his 2010 book, “Presidential Party Building,” and this incentivized them to focus on policy promotion over extensive investments in the future of party organizing. “Republican presidents saw a path forward taking their own popularity and platform and ability to raise money and grafting it onto the Republican Party,” he said. “Democrats didn’t.”

Harrison, who refused to directly criticize Obama to me, repeatedly emphasized that it was Biden who now cared about building the Democratic Party; it was Biden who was, in his favored word of the moment, transformative. “My boss — it is Joe Biden. He is the head of our party. We are doing things in the image of what he wants for this party, and we are very fortunate because he believes in the strength of the party. He believes in the D.N.C.,” he said with typical cheer. “I’m not the final word on where we go as the Democratic Party. I am part of the machinery.”

Like past D.N.C. chairmen, he is subordinate to the president, though reports have suggested he hasn’t always been entirely pleased about it. The de facto boss of the D.N.C. is not simply Biden, but the White House staff members closest to him, those charged with executing his political vision. None of the state party chairs who regularly interact with the D.N.C. had an ill word for Harrison; if they don’t always regard him as a visionary, they at least find him to be an affable power broker with an intimate understanding of the mechanics of party building.

Many state chairs consider, rather, operatives like Anita Dunn, one of Biden’s closest senior advisers, and Jen O’Malley Dillon, a Biden deputy chief of staff, as the top shot-callers; Ron Klain, Biden’s first chief of staff, was part of that cohort before he left the White House. Sam Cornale, the D.N.C.’s executive director, carries out their mandates. And if Biden’s inner circle cares far more than Obama ever did about the fate of a governor, a statehouse majority or even the House elections, they are still, naturally, most focused on 2024, and the small number of states in the Electoral College that will decide the next president. No Biden White House is going to sign off on a very expensive, long-range plan to turn Nebraska or Mississippi blue.

Rhetorically, Howard Dean’s 50-state vision has won out: D.N.C. staff members talk fondly of Dean’s tenure. But many of the largest investments today — the millions of dollars transferred, the sophisticated targeting of voters, the dispatching of seasoned operatives — are reserved for the relatively few states that play host to the prime federal races. Dean himself wishes that the states where the Republicans now dominate got far more attention from the national party. “The reason Democrats don’t win there is because they do not put the work in,” Dean said. “You cannot abandon a state. Otherwise, it’s Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson giving the Democratic message to voters.”

Senator Harry Reid (left), the majority leader, and Howard Dean, former Democratic National Committee chairman,  in 2007.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The state party chairs who sing the highest praises for Biden, Harrison and the D.N.C. are naturally in the battlegrounds. Lavora Barnes, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said she speaks with Harrison at least once a month and called him “terrifically helpful.” Michigan was, perhaps, the brightest spot for Democrats last year, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer winning re-election and Democrats winning full control of the State Legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. Ben Wikler, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, extolled both Harrison and his predecessor, Perez, for recognizing that year-round campaign organizing was required in his state, where Republicans and Democrats are virtually deadlocked. He called the D.N.C. a “godsend” for Wisconsin.

Tina Podlodowski, who until this year served as chair of Washington State’s Democratic Party, has a more conflicted view. “For the folks that believe a national party should be focused in on the presidential race and Washington, D.C., the D.N.C. functions exceedingly well,” Podlodowski said; Washington State reliably votes blue in presidential elections. “I think for people like me who believe there should be more investment in down-ballot races and building state party organizing, the D.N.C. is a disappointment.”

Podlodowski called the D.N.C.’s investment in her state “negligible,” even with Democrats there battling to win a majority in the legislature and flip crucial House seats, pointing enviously to the D.N.C.’s strong support of Wisconsin. “Ben Wikler is a good chair, but honestly Wisconsin has a million less voters than Washington State, and the amount of money that has been spent should have a better return.”

Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, said states like hers, which used to send Democrats to the Senate with regularity but now are G.O.P. strongholds, aren’t receiving enough aid. “State parties continue to really be on their own,” she said. “I would love to see us get back to where we were during the 50-state strategy days,” she told me. “There will always be tension, I think, between how national thinks things should be run versus when you’re on the ground. But we really do always have to trust and believe the on-the-ground perspective first.”

Relaying that perspective can be a challenge. D.N.C. members describe tightly choreographed meetings where dissenting resolutions are stifled. And with an incumbent in the White House, even members of pivotal committees, like rules and bylaws, lack tangible clout. “The White House advises they want X, Y, Z,” the member of the rules committee told me, “and then we vote on it.”

In June, the brinkmanship continued, as the D.N.C.’s rules and bylaws committee met again, this time deciding to allow New Hampshire Democrats until Sept. 1 to continue negotiating a plan for their primary. But Georgia’s new status as an early-voting state is also now in doubt: The spokesperson for the Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, said in a statement that he would not go along with the new Democratic calendar and would keep the established March primary date.

What difference more time will make for New Hampshire is unclear. Democrats there insist that it is their right to go first, ahead of South Carolina. Biden, as of now, plans to be nowhere near the Granite State next winter. In theory, Harrison’s D.N.C. will simply not recognize the New Hampshire primary nor any of the delegates won by Kennedy and Williamson. For national Democrats, the ugliness of it all — a sitting president losing a primary to the incendiary son of a Democratic icon — would be harder to dismiss.

The way Arnesen, the New Hampshire talk-show host, sees it, unless one of the warring factions blinks, Republicans will have free rein in her state for the next half a year as Biden and his surrogates are absent. “If I am going to have to vote in that first presidential primary in New Hampshire, who do I vote for: Marianne or R.F.K.? No Biden on the ballot. What’s my [expletive] choice?”

Harrison, for now at least, is not budging. “The D.N.C. is recognizing South Carolina as the first primary,” he told me firmly. “Regardless of what New Hampshire does or whatever, our D.N.C. has authorized that the first primary we are counting toward the allocation of delegates will be South Carolina.” New Hampshire, he added, will have “plenty of time to come to the table and figure it out, and we’re going to give them as many opportunities as possible.”

Ross Barkan is a contributing writer for the magazine who last wrote about the crises facing the New York State Democratic Party. He is the author of two novels and a nonfiction account of Covid’s impact on New York City. David Williams is a Colorado-based photographer whose work offers a distinct glimpse into the lives, cultures and cuisines that make up society today.

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