CHICAGO – Democrats agreed to shake up tradition Saturday by wedging Nevada between Iowa's leadoff caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in the 2008 presidential nominating calendar and adding South Carolina soon afterward.
The addition of Nevada's caucuses and the South Carolina primary to a presidential calendar long dominated by Iowa and New Hampshire is intended to give a greater voice to Hispanics and blacks — minorities critical to Democrats' success.
Nevada has a sizable Hispanic population while South Carolina has a high concentration of black voters. The early contests in those states will give Democrats more prominence in the Southeast and the Southwest, regions that tend to support Republicans.
Advocates of the plan passed on a voice vote by the Democratic National Comittee say it will force Democratic candidates for the White House to develop a broader message that extends beyond the concerns of voters in Iowa or New Hampshire.
But the altered schedule poses risks. New Hampshire, for example, is threatening to ignore the party lineup by moving its primary even earlier, despite the possibility that Democrats would punish candidates who campaign in states with schedules that violate party rules.
The plan would keep Iowa's caucuses in their leadoff position Jan. 14. Nevada would follow with its own caucuses Jan. 19. New Hampshire would retain its status as the first-in-the-nation primary, with voting Jan. 22. South Carolina would hold its primary Jan. 29.
Eager to keep states from jumping in line, the DNC also passed enforcement rules that would punish candidates who campaign in states that ignore the party and set their own schedule. Some party members worry that would create an unseemly intraparty fight when Democrats can least afford it.
Under that plan, candidates who venture into states that ignore party rules would not get any delegates from those contests. But some DNC members were unsure how effective such a sanction would be, particularly if the states doing the leapfrogging are small and have few delegates to offer.
Others complain that the added contests in Nevada and South Carolina squeeze so many contests early in the nomination process that the party's nominee could be determined by the beginning of February, before most states even get a chance to vote.
"You're ceding authority to those four states," Kathleen Sullivan, the chairman of the Democratic Party in New Hampshire and a member of the rules committee, said before Saturday's meeting.
She made an unsuccessful plea Saturday to defeat the plan.
"By compressing Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina into 15 days, our candidates will not face the test of speaking to average voters about the issues that will matter in November 2008," Sullivan told the full committee Saturday. "Our nominee will be chosen by the end of January, a nominee who will be chosen by fewer than 500,000 voters. That is not democracy, that is not diversity."
She called the plan a "hurried, Band-aid solution" that doesn't address the problem of crowding too many contests early in the year.
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said the proposed schedule would make Iowa's influence even more disproportionate.
"If there was a big stretch between the caucuses and New Hampshire, you have time to recover from a stumble and, if you do well, you have time to show some real weaknesses further down the road," he said.
The Democratic Party is made up of a multitude of interest groups — based on ethnicity, ideology, sexual orientation and more that create palpable internal tensions.
Donna Brazile, a DNC member from Washington and Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said elections in Nevada and South Carolina will be "proxies for all the other people in the South, the West, the Midwest who are not being talked to."
The message to candidates, she said, is, "If you can't come and see us next spring, don't come next fall."