Under the Dome

With earlier primary, how much time will presidential candidates spend in NC?

Sen. Marco Rubio pose for photos with supporters during a campaign rally Saturday, January 9, 2016 at the N.C. State Fairgrounds’ Gov. James E. Holshouser Building.
Sen. Marco Rubio pose for photos with supporters during a campaign rally Saturday, January 9, 2016 at the N.C. State Fairgrounds’ Gov. James E. Holshouser Building. tlong@newsobserver.com

Back in September, N.C. Republican Party leaders had to decide whether the state’s presidential primary would be a winner-take-all contest or one where multiple candidates can get a share of the state’s 72 delegates.

The March 15 primary will use a proportional method to allocate convention delegates, after the party’s Executive Committee voted against the winner-take-all option.

“I think both have advantages,” executive director Dallas Woodhouse said, adding that it’s “unknowable” which method would generate the most attention from the presidential candidates.

North Carolina legislators moved the primary from May to March in the hopes of playing a larger role in the nominating process.

But the Republican National Committee blocked efforts for an even earlier primary here. That means North Carolina won’t get the kind of action that Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire receive as the first states to vote.

By the time voters here head to the polls, the results will be in from primaries in 24 states as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

North Carolina also will be among several primaries on March 15, including Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and the Northern Mariana Islands. Of those, only Florida has more delegates up for grabs than North Carolina, with a total of 99. And both Ohio and Florida have opted for a winner-take-all primary.

“If this splintering among the Republicans continues into mid-March, North Carolina’s system will benefit those in the second- and third-place tiers” who probably will put campaign resources here, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.

Candidates who don’t have a shot at finishing first in Florida and Ohio could come here instead. And Florida is home turf for former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, while John Kasich is the popular governor in Ohio.

“That will certainly be an advantage to North Carolina, that there is not a favorite son or daughter in this contest,” Bitzer said.

But the decision to use a proportional allocation could mean fewer visits from the frontrunners, who’ll have less incentive to finish first here. “I’m wondering if North Carolina hasn’t put itself at a disadvantage by going the proportional route as opposed to winner-take-all,” Bitzer said.

North Carolina has already seen campaign rallies featuring Donald Trump, Jeb Bush and Rubio, and more candidates will campaign here as March draws closer.

“There’s no doubt that the earlier primary and the system that we’ve set up has enhanced North Carolina’s importance and visibility,” Woodhouse said. “It is a benefit to the people of North Carolina to see these candidates early and often.”

But the early primary isn’t the only reason the presidential campaigns are coming here. “It’s important because North Carolina has been a swing state that has also performed admirably for Republicans,” Woodhouse said.

The state went red for Mitt Romney in 2012, but Barack Obama won here in 2008.

In part because of those dynamics, the Republican National Committee has awarded North Carolina more delegates this year. Woodhouse says the state will have the sixth-largest GOP convention delegation even though it’s the ninth most populous state in the country.

On the Democratic side, party leaders here didn’t have the option of a winner-take-all primary, according to N.C. Democratic Party executive director Kimberly Reynolds. National rules require proportional allocation of delegates.

Only candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote statewide or within a congressional district will get some of the state’s 121 delegates. Some delegates will be allocated based on statewide results, while others will be based on the results within each congressional district.

It’s unknown whether the Democratic nomination will be largely settled by the time North Carolina votes on March 15. Bitzer said the first three contests will show whether Bernie Sanders will remain a serious competitor for Hillary Clinton.

“If she loses the first two out of three, that may be the signal that this may go on longer than most folks have expected,” he said.

Woodhouse, meanwhile, said his party could benefit if the main action is on the Republican side in March. Unaffiliated voters can choose which party’s primary they want to vote in, and a competitive GOP contest could entice them.

“People like to be part of something exciting,” he said. “There’s some indication that with unaffiliated voters, if they take your primary ballot, they are more likely to stick with you in the fall.”

Staff writer Colin Campbell

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