by Barry Smith
RALEIGH – The state Senate’s recent vote to move North Carolina’s presidential preference primary to March 15, 2016, means the state won’t be one of the early-tier decision-makers. But with the winner-take-all format established in House Bill 373, North Carolina should grab the attention of presidential contenders.
“Now with a winner-take-all, North Carolina is going to be a big prize,” said Andy Taylor, professor of political science at N.C. State University. “A lot will depend on the status of the race at the time, who’s still in, and the winnowing effect of states before us.”
“If there is a real contest going on, winning North Carolina could be a big boost,” said Chalmers Brumbaugh, political science professor at Elon University.
Traditionally, North Carolina’s presidential preference primary has been held in early May, along with primaries for statewide and local offices. The May date, in most instances, meant that the major party nominees had pretty sown up their nominations by the time the state’s voters cast their ballots.
Two years ago, lawmakers decided to decouple the presidential preference primary from the remaining primaries and place it soon after South Carolina’s presidential preference primary, making it one of the earliest in the nation.
However, that front-loaded date ran afoul of Republican and Democratic party rules. The likely result of keeping a February date would have been penalties from the parties greatly reducing the number of delegates North Carolina could send to the presidential nominating conventions.
The March 15 date allows North Carolina to have a winner-take-all primary and still comply with national GOP convention rules. In the past, the state’s delegates have been awarded proportionately. If the candidate receiving the most support from North Carolina voters withdraws from the race before the nominating convention, then all the delegates will be released from their commitment and they can vote for any candidate.
While final primary and caucus dates aren’t yet set in many states, including North Carolina’s (which depends on the House approving the latest version of H.B. 373), it appears that about 20 states will have presidential primaries or caucuses before March 15, 2016. Four other states — Ohio, Florida, Illinois, and Missouri — are slated to have their primaries on that date.
“I’d be very surprised if the Republican [nomination] isn’t still up for grabs” in mid-March, Taylor said.
North Carolina will have one of the larger delegations to the 2016 Republican National Convention, primarily because of its population and GOP success in the state.
“That would make it a bigger deal and a bigger prize to win,” Brumbaugh said. Winning all of the state’s delegates would be a momentum builder for the Republican nominee, he said.
Taylor said that while the state could be a major target for 2016 hopefuls, moving the primary date to the middle of the pack likely would negate efforts to get North Carolina’s issues raised to the intensity that states holding earlier primaries receive.
Taylor also said he expects decoupling the presidential preference primary could reduce voter turnout for the May 2016 primary for statewide and local offices.
“It still will be at a different time than the down-ballot primaries, which are still going to be in May,” Taylor said.
The March 15, 2016, primary date is not yet law. While the Senate passed H.B. 373 by a 45-0 margin, the House version of the bill had an earlier primary date. The bill moving the primary to mid-March could face a vote in the House sometime this week.Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.