Politics Columns & Blogs

Christensen: A post-Iowa look at the NC presidential primary

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders pose for a photo before debating at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday in Durham, N.H.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders pose for a photo before debating at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday in Durham, N.H. AP

The Iowa caucuses last week scrambled the presidential picture, but what will they mean for the North Carolina primaries March 15?

For the Democrats, North Carolina looks like part of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Southern firewall – the back part.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders ran a close second to Clinton – a virtual tie – in Iowa, and he is favored to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. In both states, the Democratic electorate is dominated by white liberals. But when the contest heads South, the field is expected to favor Clinton because of two factors – she is strong among African-American voters, and white Southern Democrats tend to be more centrist than their Northern counterparts.

A survey taken two weeks ago showed North Carolina Democrats favoring Clinton over Sanders, 59 percent to 26 percent. Among African-American voters, Clinton’s lead was even larger – 77 percent to 12 percent. The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh.

Clinton also has picked up the support of the state’s three Democratic congressmen – G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus; David Price of Chapel Hill; and Alma Adams of Greensboro. She also has the backing of former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, Durham Mayor Bill Bell and singer and former congressional candidate Clay Aiken.

Sanders’ most prominent endorsement has been Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell. But Sanders showed he can draw a big crowd when he put 9,000 people in the Greensboro Coliseum. North Carolina’s many college campuses provide a ready base for Sanders.

Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, says it’s doubtful that North Carolina will play a major role in the Democratic primary. The Sanders insurgency is likely to hit the Southern firewall when South Carolina holds its primary Feb. 27 and when seven other Southern states hold their primaries March 1. If Clinton has not dispatched Sanders by the time North Carolina votes March 15, Taylor said, she will be in deep trouble.

“There are a lot of states before us,” Taylor said. “I just don’t see how we can become interesting or important in the ebb and flow of the race.”

But on the Republican side, the picture is much more complicated and much more fluid.

The victory by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in Iowa, the disappointing showing by New York businessman Donald Trump and the surging third-place finish by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have shaken up the picture, and made a long fight much more likely.

North Carolina Republican voters tend to be quite conservative. The PPP survey in January found Trump leading here with 38 percent, Cruz with 16 percent and Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson with 8 percent. But it isn’t clear how much that poll will mean by March; numerous states will hold primaries, and voter perception of the candidates will change.

Political brackets

When I talked with Cruz last spring, he saw the Republican Party as several brackets in a tournament. Cruz saw himself as the leading candidate of the conservative/Tea Party bracket, which he put at 25 percent of the party. His task was to battle former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the evangelical bracket and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for the libertarian bracket. Both Huckabee and Paul dropped out of the race last week.

A 2013 study of Republican voters, called the Republican Party Project – done by a Democratic group, interestingly – found that about one-third of the party was composed of evangelicals, 20 percent of Tea Party supporters and 25 percent of moderates, with the rest not falling into any category. The study included two focus groups held in Raleigh.

North Carolina’s Republican Party, with its strong representation among evangelicals and among working people, should be a prime target for both Cruz and Trump.

Rubio is more likely to prospect for votes in the fast-growing urban/suburban areas.

Cruz has been endorsed by Congressman Mark Meadows of Cashiers and by state Rep. Rayne Brown.

But Rubio has more establishment support. He has been backed by Congressman Robert Pittenger of Charlotte; former state GOP chairs Robin Hayes, Tom Fetzer and Ferrell Blount; Raleigh businessman Art Pope; and nine state House members and three state senators.

But North Carolina’s ability to play a decisive role in the GOP selection process, Taylor said, is likely to be modest. Numerous Southern states will hold their primaries on March 1.

Awarding delegates

And even on March 15, the candidates’ focus probably will be on major Rust Belt states such as Illinois and Ohio and on the swing state of Florida rather than on North Carolina, where the prize will be modest because the delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis, rather than winner-take-all.

But before we get too carried away with the Iowa results, let’s remember that the voting is just beginning.

Cruz won the Iowa caucuses with 51,666 votes, followed by Trump with 45,427, and Rubio caused a sensation by finishing third with 43,165.

In North Carolina’s last congressional election, 12th District Rep. George Holding won 153,991 votes to defeat his Democratic opponent, Brenda Cleary, who garnered 114,718.

In fact, Sean Haugh, the Libertarian candidate for Senate and a pizza delivery man, got 109,100 votes.

So a little perspective is in order.