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Iowa’s GOP caucus date is set — but timing New Hampshire’s primary is not so simple

The Democratic Party's changes to its nominating process are part of the reason New Hampshire has not yet said when its 2024 primary will be held.
Image: Americans Head To The Polls To Vote In The 2022 Midterm Elections
Voters fill out their ballots at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 8.Scott Eisen / Getty Images file

CONCORD, N.H. — The Iowa Republican Party’s decision to hold its traditional first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses Jan. 15 would normally mean New Hampshire could go ahead and set its primary date. But Democrats’ move to change their nominating contests in 2024 has left New Hampshire’s planning still unsettled. 

New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan has broad authority to set the primary date to make sure it’s ahead of other states’ primaries. For years, that meant his predecessor Bill Gardner placed them a week or so after Iowa. 

This year, Iowa Democrats have not said whether they will join Iowa Republicans in holding their caucuses Jan. 15. The Democratic National Committee stripped Iowa of its place in the lineup of four official early-voting states, though it could still hold an early contest that would result in party sanctions including the potential loss of delegates. But it’s not when Iowa Democrats caucus that matters to New Hampshire — it’s how they caucus. 

After major changes in the 2020 caucuses meant to expand access for would-be caucus-goers, Iowa Democrats are talking about going further, including potentially adding a mail-in option for those who cannot attend in person. To New Hampshire, that makes Democrats’ Iowa “caucus” sound suspiciously like a primary, which could encourage Scanlan to move New Hampshire ahead of Iowa by at least seven days, as Granite State law requires.

It all comes back to Democrats’ decision to change their early-state lineup after vote-counting problems plagued Iowa in 2020. South Carolina is set to hold the DNC’s first officially sanctioned primary Feb. 3, but New Hampshire officials are furious about the move and determined to undercut it, no matter the punishment. The DNC’s official schedule would see New Hampshire and Nevada jointly hold the second primary after South Carolina.

According to Scanlan’s office, Iowa’s announcement “gives New Hampshire room to schedule a first-in-the-nation primary” ahead of South Carolina’s Democratic primary.

But Scanlan is still “waiting for other pieces to fall into place” before setting the date, his office added.

Christopher Ager, the New Hampshire Republican Party chair, told NBC News that he expects Scanlan to “set the date for Jan. 23 — unless Iowa Democrats do something to alter the caucus.”

Scanlan is in no rush to announce the primary date. He told NBC News this week he most likely will not set a date until after the filing period, which could come in October. There’s precedent for that: The 2008 New Hampshire primary was the earliest ever, on Jan. 8. Gardner, then the secretary of state, announced the date just weeks before, well after candidates had already filed.

New Hampshire Republicans would prefer to keep their primary in late January, after Iowa, rather than see Scanlan have to leapfrog Iowa because of Democrats’ maneuvering. Republican state Rep. Ross Berry, who chairs the House Election Law Committee, said he is considering “contingencies” that might prevent that.

Berry said he is considering introducing legislation that would allow Scanlan to set two different primary dates, one for each party. He called it a “last resort option” that would give Scanlan a new tool if he makes the determination that Iowa’s Democratic caucus is functionally the same as a primary. 

“We don’t want to get caught flat-footed on it,” Berry said. “If the secretary of state says, ‘You know what, I’m cool with Iowa mailing in their stuff,’ we have no problem, I see no reason to change things,” he continued.

Separating each party’s primary would be a first for New Hampshire, which has been holding a presidential primary since 1916 and has had the first primary since 1920. But doing so would be the latest demonstration of how the small New England state, which prides itself on being a place where underdog candidates can meet with voters through retail and person-to-person politics, has adapted to fight off challenges to its treasured status over the years.

The secretary of state’s office did not comment on Berry’s proposal. The state Legislature is not in session, so any new bill would not be introduced until the fall.

Berry acknowledged the challenges of potentially holding two separate elections, but he said it’s a small price to pay. 

“The first-in-the-nation primary brings in so much commercial activity. Protecting it far outstrips the downside of having to have two elections,” he said.