RALEIGH – Reporters and pundits were certainly right to react to the outcome of the Texas and Ohio presidential primaries by forecasting significant effects on North Carolina politics. Actually, I think they were too restrained. Hillary Clinton’s resurgence did not just raise up North Carolina’s May 6 primary. I think that North Carolina has become the most important prize in the Clinton-Obama contest.
It’s true that the other remaining big state, Pennsylvania, will hold its primary earlier, on April 22. But unless something truly shocking happens between now and then, Clinton is almost certain to win Pennsylvania. Its electorate resembles those of neighbors Ohio and New Jersey, states where Clinton performed well. She has maintained consistent leads in Pennsylvania polls. More importantly, it will hold a closed primary – no independents or Republicans allowed. This will rob Obama of a valuable cushion of votes he has taken into earlier contests. If, for example, Missouri’s and Connecticut’s competitive primaries on Super Tuesday had been closed instead of open, Clinton would have won both.
North Carolina, on the other hand, is more competitive. While Obama has led Clinton in a number of recent polls, the margins haven’t been overwhelming – and have recently tightened. Neither candidate can be said to have a strong home-court advantage. Obama has won South Carolina and other Deep South primaries thanks in part to strong support among black voters. But Clinton has won the Border and Peripheral South states of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, plus Texas and (sort of) Florida. North Carolina is a diverse state. Some communities look like inner-city Atlanta or rural Alabama. Others look like suburban Nashville or the Ozarks.
Because the significance of a Clinton win in Pennsylvania has already been discounted in the political-media market – an Obama win there would, of course, clinch the nomination, but seems most unlikely – I think that North Carolina will become the Next Big Story.
If Clinton comes from behind to win North Carolina – particularly if she couples it with a simultaneous victory in the other May 6 primary in Indiana, whose Democratic electorate again resembles Ohio’s – that will give her another crucial big-state win. She’ll use it to sell the superdelegates, who have long been the campaign’s true audience since Super Tuesday, on the notion that only she can beat John McCain in vote-rich states.
And if Obama defeats Clinton in North Carolina, it will be widely seen as another turning point – the end of her big-state comeback that began last Tuesday, and the beginning of a final, decisive shift of momentum and Democratic stalwarts to the Obama cause.
There’s another reason why North Carolina has now become the main battleground of the Democratic presidential contest. His name is John Edwards.
Edwards won 26 delegates in sanctioned primary and caucus votes before he dropped out, plus another 13 in the controversial Florida primary. An Edwards endorsement has the potential, in other words, of netting a candidate more delegates than he or she could by winning any remaining primary or caucus. So, whom will Edwards endorse?
The former senator has been keeping his intentions close the vest, and wisely so. There are good reasons to think he would favor Obama. The latter did, after all, prove Edwards correct in his original assumption that the supposedly inevitable Clinton was vulnerable to a challenge that combined left-wing Democrats with independents. However, that’s the other way to think about it – the race at this point was supposed to be Clinton v. Edwards, except that Obama ruined the plan. Might there be some resentment there? Edwards also seems to favor Clinton’s approach to health-care reform over Obama’s.
It seems to me that the voting trend in North Carolina might play a role in the endorsement decision. If Edwards were to endorse a candidate just before the May 6 primary, it could help tip the race if it remains competitive. Or, perhaps Edwards will wait and use the North Carolina primary results as a clue to where he ought to throw his support in the subsequent run up to the Denver convention. If so, Edwards’ bloc of delegates might be seen as a sort of bonus for the winner of the North Carolina primary.
Although I’m not necessarily looking forward to the deluge of national media and political operatives, it is exciting for North Carolina to take the center stage in American politics, at least for a few weeks. It’ll be too bad, however, for all those enthusiastic, hard-working candidates for governor, Council of State, appellate judgeships, legislature, and local offices. Their campaigns will be swamped, their messages drowned.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.