How much is an early presidential primary worth? Georgia hopes $1 billion

The battleground state has a chance to leapfrog Iowa in Democrats' primary calendar, but it needs GOP support. Advocates hope economics can bridge the political divide.

Voters wait in line in Atlanta on Nov. 8.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images file

Early presidential nominating contests have given states like Iowa and New Hampshire prestige, national attention and outsize political importance — but how much is that actually worth?

While White House hopefuls and the swarm of reporters covering them spend millions during primary season, the promises candidates make to win over voters can be worth much more, as evidenced by support for federal ethanol rules that have created a guaranteed market for Iowa corn farmers.

Georgia, a battleground state, now has an opportunity to reap those kinds of economic benefits.

The Democratic National Committee is giving it a chance to jump ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire in the party’s newly revamped calendar — but only if the Republicans who control Georgia go along with it and change the date of their 2024 primary. The politics are dicey, so proponents are appealing to potential financial gains, instead, arguing the early primary would be an economic boon.

An early primary could add $1.12 billion to Georgia’s economy, according to a new economic impact report prepared by economist Tom Smith of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, who has studied the economic impact of major sporting and cultural events on local economies.

The 26-page report, commissioned by Democrats and first shared with NBC News, estimates that a 12-candidate field would bring $220 million in direct spending from campaigns, PACs and media outlets, from TV ads and staff members’ salaries to hotel, car, office and event space rentals to extra business for restaurants, caterers and more.

“It’s hard to overstate what a game changer the influx of over $9 million that Athens stands to gain from an earlier primary would be for the business community,” said David Bradley, the CEO of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, citing the report’s estimated spending for the college city northeast of Atlanta. “The flurry of campaign visits will bring a rush of spending and attention to the Main Street businesses that are the heart of Athens’ local economy.”

But the biggest boon to the state could come from shaping the policies of whoever wins in 2024.

“It’s a very delegate-rich state. It is a swing state. So I think in order to win the presidency, you’re going to have to win Georgia,” said Smith, the economic report’s author. “What could happen if a president decides to reward the state through a set of policies?”

A generation of presidential candidates from both parties stumping in Iowa pledged support for a renewable fuel standard that requires gasoline to be blended with ethanol, which is produced from corn, much of which comes from Iowa farms.

And pressure on presidential candidates in Nevada, which has held the third nominating contest since 2008, has helped keep the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository empty, even though billions of dollars have been invested in a federal project to do the opposite.

Former President Donald Trump supported the Yucca Mountain project for years before abruptly reversed course days ahead of Nevada’s caucuses in 2020, even though he was running unopposed for the GOP nomination, as he sought to win the state in the general election. “Nevada, I hear you on Yucca Mountain and my Administration will RESPECT you!” Trump tweeted.

For Georgia, that could mean more federal funding for the Port of Savannah, one of the largest in the country, more incentives for the state’s booming electric vehicle battery manufacturing industry, fewer regulations on the financial tech firms clustered around Atlanta and more favorable trade policies for the state’s major agricultural exports, according to the report.

“Besides the boom of economic activity an early primary would generate in Savannah, I’m also optimistic it would bring more attention to our bustling port and hopefully secure some additional commitments and investments,” said Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, a Democrat.

Instead of admiring cornfields in Iowa or machining plants in New Hampshire, candidates could be making paeans to pecans and Vidalia onions in Georgia — even though it’s known as the Peach State, it’s no longer a top U.S. producer of peaches — or touring one of its giant new EV plants.

“There’s still so much we can do to grow the industry, especially here in Georgia, with one being specialized EV training,” said Kenny Mullins, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ union chapter in Atlanta. “The additional exposure we stand to gain from becoming part of the early presidential primary calendar could be a real defining moment.”

Georgia Republicans, however, have no interest in doing the DNC or President Joe Biden’s bidding, particularly after Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia since 1992.

But advocates of the early primary hope the promise of more jobs and investment will win over Gov. Brian Kemp, GOP legislators and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who ultimately sets the state’s primary date and has said he’d love to move up Georgia’s primary — in 2028, not next year.

“Georgia Republicans pride ourselves on our pro-business policies that grow the economy, create jobs and bring more investment into our state,” said Josh Gregory, the former president of University of Georgia Campus Republicans. “The economic case for making Georgia an early primary state couldn’t be stronger, and any business-minded conservative should support it.”

In 2020, Georgia held its primary on June 9, more than four months after Iowa's nominating contest.

Under the DNC's new plan, South Carolina’s primary would be on Feb. 3, Nevada would go on Feb. 6, Georgia would follow on Feb. 13, and Michigan’s primary would be on Feb. 27.

It’s impossible to put a precise price tag on the value of an early primary. And critics of economic impact analyses, which are frequently used by development officials, say they’re often based on rosy hypotheticals and inherently unquantifiable valuations.

Some researchers, like an Iowa State University economist who studied his state’s caucuses in 2008, concluded that spending was “not as large, I suspect, as most people would assume.” The first-of-its-kind analysis by a University of New Hampshire economist in 2000 reached a similar conclusion, arguing the economic impact of the state’s first-in-the-country primary was small but not insignificant.

Still, that hasn’t stopped state officials from raising the alarm about lost revenue in Iowa and New Hampshire as they prepare to lose their status in the Democratic primary. Republicans, meanwhile, are sticking with tradition and keeping their primary calendar unchanged for 2024.