If the current calendar of 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses doesn’t change, North Carolina’s late-February contest will be one of the nation’s earliest. After Mitt Romney’s announcement that he won’t enter the race, I’m starting to think that the North Carolina primary may prove to be not just early but potentially decisive.
Here’s the scenario I have in mind.
Imagine that Scott Walker wins the first prize on the schedule, the Iowa caucuses on January 18, 2016. It’s not hard to do. He is the governor of nearby Wisconsin and led the field in a just-released poll for the Des Moines Register. Walker doesn’t have to win by much for such an outcome to be a major splash. It won’t be about the delegate count yet. It will be about winnowing the field.
Next, imagine that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wins the New Hampshire primary on January 26. He’s ranked first or second in all the recent polls in the Granite State. His brand of Republicanism may well find its strongest support in another northeastern state.
After New Hampshire, there could be a kind of “Mini-Tuesday” event on February 2 with presidential primaries in New York and Utah and presidential caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado. If it happens, my scenario assumes a scrambled outcome. Christie wins his neighboring New York. Walker wins his neighboring Minnesota. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wins establishment-friendly Utah. And perhaps Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wins the low-turnout caucuses in Colorado. A few days later, on February 6, Nevada is slated to hold caucuses. Again, I’m thinking that Paul or Rubio might do well there.
It is at this point that the Carolinas will have the say. Imagine that Bush wins the South Carolina primary on February 13. Again, not exactly a stretch. He ranked highest in a recent Gravis Marketing survey (the version without Romney listed) and could benefit from the solid organization his brother built in the state in 2000 and 2004.
That would set up a North Carolina primary on February 16 in which there is no national frontrunner, with delegates split among four or five major contenders. Even if punished by the Republican National Committee for moving up its primary, North Carolina will still be the biggest delegate prize among states actually in contention in November (sorry, New York Republicans). GOP leaders and donors will watch the North Carolina primary closely. The national media will hype it.
Yes, I admit that my scenario is speculative. But so is every other scenario about the 2016 presidential race at this point. Honest pundits, even those with decades of experience and formidable expertise, will admit that they have no idea how the GOP nomination is going to play out. If Jeb Bush had a different last name and immigration wasn’t a hot-button issue for some Republican activists, he might be the odds-on favorite. That’s purely hypothetical, however. In this world, these obstacles are very real.
Has there ever been an occasion when so many plausible candidates with significant experience were angling for a presidential nomination? Not really. Nor has North Carolina, a major prize, ever been in a position to winnow a large field. The Democratic primary mattered in 2008, with Hillary Clinton hoping to score at least a knockdown. But that didn’t happen, and anyway it was a two-person race by May 6, 2008.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that my wacky scenario proves prescient. What happens then? Will North Carolinians find Scott Walker’s record of conservative leadership in Wisconsin compelling? Will they buy Chris Christie’s claim that he can make blue-leaning states competitive in November? Will they give Jeb Bush another Carolina win and propel him into frontrunner status? Or will they vault Rand Paul or Marco Rubio into first or second place in the delegate count, potentially knocking one of the other early winners out of the race?
I have absolutely no idea. Fess up — neither do you. That’s what makes this race so fascinating.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation. Follow him @JohnHoodNC.