North Carolina voters last made an impact in a presidential primary in 1976 when Ronald Reagan’s victory over incumbent President Ford essentially saved his candidacy and helped pave the way for his 1980 victory.
Since then, our May primaries have had little impact on the outcome of presidential primaries. The states that host earlier primaries tend to winnow the field substantially – so that by the time May rolls around, the ultimate nominee from either party is but a foregone conclusion. However, in 2016, North Carolina Republican voters could have a significant effect on the selection of the party’s presidential nominee.
Because we carried the state for Romney in 2012 and have a Republican governor, two U.S. senators, 10 U.S. congressional representatives and majorities in both state houses, the NCGOP could send 72 delegates to the Republican National Convention. It could be the largest delegation of Republicans from North Carolina in history and would be the sixth-largest delegation from any state. A presidential candidate who wins a primary in North Carolina could immediately jump to “front runner” status in a very crowded field. And if no candidate has wrapped up the nomination by the convention, our 72 delegates could take center stage in a “brokered” convention from the floor – further exerting the influence of North Carolina’s grassroots Republicans upon the selection of our ultimate presidential nominee.
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The law sets our presidential primary on the “first Tuesday after the South Carolina primary.” That likely puts the primary date in February 2016. The RNC’s rules provide a “carve-out” for February primaries for only four states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Any state that violates this rule by conducting a February primary will forfeit all but 12 delegates. There are no exceptions, and North Carolina remains out of compliance.
Lawmakers had good intentions. They thought that by holding a primary after South Carolina, they would avoid penalties. They also thought that by having a February primary, the world would beat a path to our door – bringing national media exposure, money and an economic boom-let to North Carolina. They also assumed that the RNC would waive the rule and not penalize the NCGOP. They assumed wrong.
The crowded field of presidential wannabes will not step foot in our state. They will not visit the fire stations, rotary clubs and rubber chicken dinners. They won’t ride in the parades, eat barbecue, kiss babies or spend their millions fighting over just 12 delegates – it simply isn’t worth the money.
So, good-bye, economic boom-let. Good-bye to relevance, and good-bye to any influence on the national level. Say hello to the mass of disenfranchised (and very upset) grassroots activists denied once again – by the law of unintended consequences – to finally have their say in who gets selected as our party’s nominee.
Move the primary to Tuesday, March 1, and enjoy the economic boom-let. Bring on the candidates and their entourages. Let them fill up our hotels, our restaurants and our high school auditoriums – and for the first time since 1976, our grassroots Republicans will have their say.
Claude Pope is chairman of the N.C. Republican Party.