North Carolina is about to run a political experiment. You and other potential voters will determine its outcome.
The state has traditionally held May primaries for governor, Congress, legislature, and other offices below that of president. Actually, North Carolina has traditionally held our presidential primaries in May, as well, although there were exceptions during the 1970s and 1980s.
For the 2016 cycle, state lawmakers decided to make another exception, in an effort to make North Carolina more relevant. Our presidential primaries will be on March 15, along with those of Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Here’s what truly new: to avoid the costs of running two separate days of balloting, the legislature decided to hold all primaries on March 15 — including those for down-ballot races.
What that did, in turn, is change North Carolina’s filing dates. Candidates can make their campaigns official beginning on December 1, and must file by December 21. If starting the political season during the Christmas season offends you and you’re looking for someone to blame, checks the halls of power in Raleigh. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.
I, for one, am planning to withhold my judgment about the arrangement until I see what actually happens, rather than drawing conclusions based on what is predicted to happen. In theory, the new election calendar creates both winners and losers.
For example, because North Carolina is a delegate-rich prize in a GOP nomination fight that may well remain unsettled through early March, the presidential candidates are expected to buy up every rating point of television and radio time they can find. That may mean that North Carolina candidates seeking to challenge incumbent congressmen, legislators, county commissioners, and other politicians will have a hard time renting enough bandwidth to make their campaigns viable. On the other hand, it is possible that presidential candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson may draw North Carolinians to the polls who don’t often vote in primaries, thus giving long-shot challengers a potential boost.
Here’s another open question. How will holding state and local primaries in March affect the general election? North Carolinians have little experience with this kind of calendar, which contains a huge time gap between clinching a party nomination and facing the voters in November.
Because media coverage surges during primaries and then drops back for a while before rising again in the fall, it is possible that candidates such as Attorney General Roy Cooper — the likely Democratic nominee for governor — will be disadvantaged in their races against opponents with stronger name recognition, such as incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. On the other hand, in state or local races where challengers may have to survive bitter, divisive primaries, more time may help the party not in power heal its wounds and pose a greater threat to an entrenched incumbent.
To draw a conclusion about the changes to North Carolina’s election calendar will require an objective against which to compare the outcome. If the goal is to give our state a larger role in choosing the next president, then I suppose we know what failure looks like: North Carolina opts for a candidate that doesn’t go on to win the nomination.
Regarding the political system more broadly, however, there are so many variables in the equation that it may be difficult to distinguish cause, effect, and coincidence. It’s also important to recognize the incompatibility of multiple goals often stated by reformers. For instance, I am all for making political races more competitive. That’s why I favor reforms to ballot access, the redistricting process, and other election laws. But making politics more competitive will make politics more expensive, an outcome that I see as inevitable but others may see as abhorrent.
After the 2016 elections, the winners will crow and losers will eat crow. Then we can look back and try to determine whether the change of calendar made a difference. I’m still hoping my preferred solution gets a hearing: to hold all federal elections on April 16, for obvious reasons.
John Locke Foundation chairman John Hood is the author of Catalyst: Jim Martin and the Rise of North Carolina Republicans.