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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

April 28: No, Biden Need Not Fear an Early State Upset

Now that Joe Biden has officially announced his reelection bid with nuisance-level opposition, there’s some speculation that the changing Democratic primary calendar could post pitfalls for the president. I discussed that theory at New York:

There is zero reason for Joe Biden to worry about the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, barring some unforeseeable development. Party elites are entirely in his corner. No viable opponents have emerged. And even among rank-and-file Democrats, where Biden’s support has always been a bit mushy, scattered polling shows him far ahead of announced rivals Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (who undoubtedly benefits from positive name ID unassociated with his eccentric recent views) and Marianne Williamson. To put it bluntly, if either of those candidates does become viable as an aspirant for the presidential nomination, the Democratic Party will have become unrecognizable.

That’s not to say, however, that these out-there candidates might not be capable of an embarrassingly strong showing in an isolated contest under very special circumstances. And those circumstances might be early contests in Iowa or New Hampshire, which won’t matter in the final analysis but could get significant media coverage out of sheer force of habit.

Biden himself is barred from competing in Iowa and New Hampshire, which have been the two kickoff states in the presidential nominating process since 1972. That’s because the Democratic National Committee acceded to Biden’s request for a new primary calendar in which South Carolina goes first and Iowa has been ejected from the list of “early states” holding contests prior to March 1. If (and this is still up in the air) Iowa persists with a “first-in-the-nation-caucus,” that will be an unsanctioned event and candidates competing there could lose delegates and even debate access. Whatever happens in Iowa, an unsanctioned primary is all but certain in New Hampshire, where state law requires both parties to hold contests the same day as established by the secretary of State, whose mission is to keep the Granite State first on the primary calendar. But while Biden will stay out of these proscribed contests (it would be a bit absurd for the party’s leader to violate the party’s rules), Kennedy and Williamson, having nothing to lose from sanctions and a lot to gain from a day of headlines, will undoubtedly run hard wherever Biden can’t.

What can Team Biden do to preempt the possibility of an embarrassing early loss to Team WooWoo? In Iowa, with its robust caucus traditions, and where nobody really blames Biden for the state’s loss of status (that became inevitable when the party couldn’t get the votes counted on Caucus Night in 2020), it’s likely caucusgoers pledged either to Biden or to no one will be able to subdue Kennedy or Williamson (and again, Iowa Democrats may just comply with the new calendar, allowing Biden to run there).

New Hampshire’s a bit trickier. Compliance with the new calendar is not an option, and there is some genuine Democratic anger at Biden for dropping the hammer on the Granite State. Still, New Hampshire Democrats don’t want to send an anti-vaxx slate (to cite one possible outcome) to the convention in Chicago, and they’d just as soon not throw their state to the GOP in the general election, either. As nomination-process wizard Josh Putnam notes, New Hampshire Democrats might mount a write-in effort for Biden, but they would be in trouble if it fell short: “If Williamson or Kennedy stand to gain in that scenario, it may not be Biden who loses. It may be New Hampshire that loses even more clout with the national party for 2028.”

Democrats nationally do have a number of months left to persuade the political media to ignore whatever happens in Iowa (if the state goes rogue) and New Hampshire, though there’s no question conservative media will go absolutely wild if Kennedy or Williamson officially wins in an early state, even if Biden’s not on the ballot and no one is campaigning on his behalf. There’s only so much the president’s people can do about how Fox News or the New York Post spin non-news into a big story. Probably the smart thing for them is to threaten local Democrats in any state Biden can’t enter with unending vengeance if they in any way encourage other candidates or lend credence to their empty “wins.”

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