North Carolina lawmakers are trying to do something that hasn’t been done since 1976 – make the state a player in the Republican presidential race.
That was when the state gave challenger Ronald Reagan an upset victory over President Gerald Ford, keeping him in the race and laying the ground for his successful run four years later.
Since then, North Carolina’s May primary has usually been an afterthought in the presidential selection process.
But a bill passed Tuesday by the state Senate, and expected to pass next week in the House, would move North Carolina’s presidential primary to March 15. For one of the 16 Republican candidates, the Ides of March could be a sweet spot on the primary calendar.
This move would make North Carolina a juicy prize for any Republican presidential candidate, a very big load of delegates, perhaps dwarfing any other state earlier in the calendar.
“This move would make North Carolina a juicy prize for any Republican presidential candidate,” says analyst Charlie Cook. “(It’s) a very big load of delegates, perhaps dwarfing any other state earlier in the calendar.”
That’s because the state would be one of the first winner-take-all contests in the Republican race. Party rules make any state that holds a contest earlier than that divide its delegates proportionately.
North Carolina will have 72 GOP delegates. Only five states will have more.
So North Carolina would join Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri on the 15th. While Florida has more delegates (99), the state is expected to be a slug fest between former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
Ohio could give its 66 GOP delegates to its favorite son and the 16th GOP entrant, Gov. John Kasich. Illinois could have some kind of proportional system.
That could leave North Carolina as the biggest delegate prize of the day.
The hope is that will bring candidates, along with their money and attention, to the state.
“Moving this thing up from May will have a tremendous impact,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue told his colleagues Tuesday.
In opting for March 15, lawmakers switched course. They had planned to hold the vote on March 8. But then they would have had to award delegates proportionately. In effect they traded an earlier calendar for more clout.
That could be smart. Or not.
Any time you push things back, you’re gambling that you might not be a player.
“Any time you push things back, you’re gambling that you might not be a player,” says Josh Putnam, a nationally recognized delegate expert who last year taught political science at Appalachian State.
Though the GOP hopes to end its selection process early, there’s a chance that more candidates will make it further next year. Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina should winnow the field as usual, but super PACs and simple math – somebody in a crowded field can win with a smaller percentage of votes – could help candidates hang in.
“With that many candidates, it’s tough to see how this thing is going to play out,” Putnam says. “It’s the law of unintended consequences, and it really reigns supreme over all of this.”
The last time North Carolina moved its presidential primary was in 1998 to accommodate Democrats’ Super Tuesday. Then, like now, the primary for state offices remained in May.