Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Missing the Point: A Follow Up on the Bill to Move the North Carolina Primary to March

As FHQ mentioned earlier today, the North Carolina Senate Judiciary (I) Committee considered S 440 at one of its bi-weekly meetings this morning. Again, this is the bill that would create a separate presidential primary in the Tarheel state and schedule it for the first Tuesday in March. Some of the information that came out of the meeting was predictable while the other parts of the discussion indicated a fundamental misunderstanding of the mechanics behind the formation of the current presidential primary calendar.

First of all, cost came up. According to the State Board of Elections executive director, Gary Bartlett, the price tag a separate presidential primary election would be $5 million, with counties shouldering most of the load.

And the bill's sponsor, Senator Andrew Brock (R-34th, Davie and Rowan), made a statement as well:

“Our issues haven’t been made relevant,” Brock told a Senate Judiciary Committee looking into the bill on Tuesday.

“The campaign is actually already happening here,” Brock said, referring to advertising that goes on in markets near the South Carolina border for that state’s earlier February primary. “But we just don’t have the impact as far as having our voice heard as North Carolinians.”

True, but that's where the train ran off the tracks.

On moving up earlier than the first Tuesday in March (see audio clip): "And the one reason it's in March is 'cause if we move up in to February all the other states will move up."1

It is that idea coupled with the notion above of making North Carolina issues relevant in the presidential campaign that completely misses the mark. First, if North Carolina were to move its primary up, ideally the primary would fall on a date on which no other states (or very few other states) were also scheduled. That maximizes your state's potential influence and the amount of time candidates in a competitive race spend there. That's what happened in both of the examples of North Carolina's past presidential primary relevance that were cited. In 1976, North Carolina had March 23 all to itself, among the earliest primaries in that cycle. The contest proved vital to keeping Ronald Reagan's campaign for the Republican nomination alive. And in 2008, the competitive Democratic nomination between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton rolled into North Carolina in early May and the Tarheel state only had one other state to compete with, Indiana.

But this legislation proposes moving North Carolina to a date that was already occupied by five states and could see that total double in the very near future if Alabama and Missouri pass or sign legislation, respectively to move their February contests back to March 6. That's not a recipe that will yield a 1976 or a 2008 for North Carolina. No, with that many contests, that will end up recreating the scenario North Carolina saw the last time it moved its presidential primary up to an earlier date, 1988. That first Southern Super Tuesday was so effective that North Carolina immediately scrapped the separate March primary and has been scheduled in May, concurrent with the primaries for state and local offices ever since (1992-2008).

The only other news item that emerged from this committee hearing was that Democratic senator, Josh Stein, mentioned -- as did others -- that he wouldn't sign off on any move like this (moving to March) unless it meant that all the primaries moved up, saving the aforementioned $5 million. There was, then, enough evidence today that there is a moderate level of support for the idea and if the bill is amended so that all the primaries move up, it could happen. But North Carolina won't get the bang for its buck or even the attention they want from this move if state legislators merely join the logjam on March 6. Granted it won't be a February 5, 2008 logjam, but it will be a logjam nonetheless. North Carolina, looking like a swing state for the 2012 general election and among the bigger states scheduled for that date (assuming a move), would be able to gain more attention perhaps, but not as much as if they had a date to themselves. And that's something that is far less than guaranteed at the front end of the calendar.

1 Other states are just as similarly constrained as North Carolina is. Legislative sessions across the country are drawing to a close as summer approaches and the ability to propose, much less pass, legislation is shrinking as well.

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