Monday, August 12, 2013

North Carolina Just Made the 2016 Presidential Primary Calendar More Interesting

Governor Pat McCrory (R-NC) today signed into law a fairly sweeping elections bill (HB 589) that will alter the way in which voters are registered and how elections are conducted in the Tarheel state.

The now-law also changes the timing of future presidential primaries in North Carolina. Instead of falling on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May, the North Carolina presidential primary will now occur on "the Tuesday after the first South Carolina presidential preference primary" if the primary in the Palmetto state is conducted prior to March 15 of any presidential election year.1 Given the protected status South Carolina enjoys as the "first in the South" primary in both national parties, a primary before March 15, 2016 is almost a given.

That means that North Carolina now joins Missouri on the wrong side of what will likely be the national party rules for 2016 delegate selection. In turn, that means that the 2016 presidential primary calendar takes on a different shape altogether.

According to the current RNC rules, South Carolina (and Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada) have a month prior to the next earliest contest to schedule their four delegate selection events. Missouri [Republicans] proved in 2012 that they can scale things back, opting out of a noncompliant, state-funded primary for a party-run caucus on a date compliant with national party rules.2 That may again prove to be the course of action both Missouri parties take in 2016 if the legislature in the Show Me state cannot change the date of the presidential primary there. North Carolina may or may not affect the thinking in Missouri. Regardless, it now brings to two the number of states with laws currently calling for what will be noncompliant presidential primary dates in 2016.3 Two states does not a trend make necessarily, but there is at least one state (North Carolina) now that has very few options for avoiding the RNC super penalty, the penalty now in place for states that violate the national party rules on the timing of primaries or caucuses.

Without further change to this portion of the law, North Carolina Republicans could get hammered with penalties.

...or could end up forced to go the caucus route to comply.

All of this, however, only examines one side of the equation. It fails to incorporate what the national parties or the four so-called carve-out states will do in response. What affects South Carolina affects Nevada affects New Hampshire affects Iowa and all of it affects what the national parties may do with their rules of the course of the next year when those rules will be solidified.

One option for the carve-outs is to do what they have always done: push ever forward on the calendar. But the North Carolina law makes that more difficult. It takes away the week long buffer that South Carolina parties typically require in between its primary/primaries and a primary in another southern state (assuming South Carolina maintains its customary Saturday primary date). That means that unless the North Carolina law changes, South Carolina can opt into a date that triggers the super penalty on North Carolina and starts a strong-arming process like the one between New Hampshire and Nevada in 2011. That may end up pushing North Carolina in the direction of a caucus/convention system for allocating delegates as was the case with Missouri Republican in 2012.

But the bottom line here is that North Carolina is now on South Carolina's heels. And the best case scenario for the national parties has taken a bit of a hit. As it was with no change in Missouri -- triggering later and compliant caucuses there -- and Colorado, Minnesota and Utah opting into less provocative dates, Arizona and Michigan were the next earliest states on February 23. That would leave enough time between either February 16 or 20 and the last week in January. Now, with North Carolina threatening the balance, that best case scenario could look a lot like the worst case scenario outlined here: right back to the beginning of January where things have started the last two cycles.

1 The presidential primary will now not occur concurrently with the primaries for state and local offices. Thus, the state would incur a cost by hold a new and separate presidential primary election; something several states (Arkansas, California and New Jersey) legislated to avoid in 2012 as compared to separate presidential primaries in each in 2008.

2 Missouri Democrats applied for and received a waiver from the DNC to hold an early February primary in 2012. But the Democratic nomination race was not competitive and the stakes were pretty low. That may not be the case in 2016.

3 One could also add Minnesota, Colorado and Utah to this count, but those states have options. Minnesota state parties have to agree to a uniform caucus date by March 1 of the year preceding a presidential election or the caucus date is set for the first Tuesday in February the following year according to state law. In Utah, the primary requires state funding; an action the state legislature there failed to take in 2012. Over in Colorado, the law allows the parties to opt into a caucus on either the first Tuesday of February or March. In other words, like Missouri, these states have options/future decisions to make.

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astrojob said...

So let's say that South Carolina wants to keep their primary on Saturday, but also wants a buffer of more than 3 days ahead of the next southern primary (in this case NC).

What happens? South Carolina refuses to name their primary date, and waits for North Carolina to blink? At some point, one of them has to actually set a date. Let's say we reach the point of no return, where there isn't enough time left for NC to organize their primary, and they have to pick a date, but SC hasn't named their date yet? Would a judge have to pick the date then? Or the governor?

Josh Putnam said...

In that case, I think SC would force NC's hand by scheduling their primary for a date that would automatically trigger the super penalty on NC. If the legislature is unable to act early in 2016 -- which would be hard considering election preparation would likely already be underway -- then the NC parties would pretty much be forced into adopting caucuses for allocating delegates.

...leaving a beauty contest NC primary after SC.

NC really has no choice. There is no date picking on their part. The new law is clear: if SC is before March 15, then NC is the Tuesday after SC.

astrojob said...

Right, but doesn't it take time to organize a primary? I mean, don't you have to reserve the polling locations and the like? Can that be done within the span of a couple of weeks? Or does it take two or three months? Is that timeframe equally long for both North and South Carolina?

I'm suggesting that if South Carolina can organize theirs more quickly, they could wait out NC, and just refuse to name a date until the point where NC just has no time left to put theirs together. That is, let's say that SC waits until late December, then announces a primary date of Feb. 13, and NC realizes that they can't logistically organize their primary in time for the 16th. It's not enough time. It would be a way for SC to mess with NC if they refuse to blink.

Josh Putnam said...

Yes, SC can wait out NC to some extent. Past precedent has shown the SC waits until the final southern state falls into place and fairly quickly decides on a date thereafter. The SCGOP was right on the heels of the FL decision in 2011 and waited for the dust to settle with the FL situation in 2007 as well. That's the beauty of the NC law though. The NC primary is anchored to SC so SC can't follow that past pattern in this case.

But I don't think it comes down to SC waiting NC out. The NCGOP is going to hear for two solid years from the RNC about the looming super penalty. NC doesn't have the type of leverage FL had in the past because all the rules-based loopholes have been closed.

I feel like NC will have some contingencies in place by October 1, 2015 when dates have to be finalized. ...either a feet-dragging switch to caucuses or a conditional scenario that basically keeps the law the same but allows the state the latitude to use the May primary for president if they face penalties.

We will see. But the end game is much easier to see on this one than was the case with FL in 2011 because of the rules changes on the RNC side.