Why Is North Carolina's Primary Election So Early Now?

Jan 28, 2020

File photo of polling worker as she enters a polling place in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, April 24, 2019 as early voting began in the Republican primary election for the North Carolina 9th Congressional District, a special election that was forced after last year's race was voided by a ballot-collection scandal.
Credit Chuck Burton / AP

As anyone in North Carolina knows, political ads - on television and social media - are everywhere right now.

"For the average voter they're probably going to say, why are we seeing so much attention this early? Shouldn't this be in the fall?" said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury.

North Carolina's primary election to help decide the Democratic presidential nominee is five weeks from today. But North Carolina's primary hasn't always been this early.

"We typically have been one of the last states traditionally to hold a primary election," Bitzer explains. "Over the past 10, 15, 20 years, we've tended to see primary elections in May."

After trying out a mid-March primary in the 2016 presidential election, North Carolina is moving on up and permanently changing its primary from May to early March. This year, we'll join 13 other states voting on March 3rd, the infamous Super Tuesday.

"By Super Tuesday, we tend to see a front runner really capture the number of delegates and march their way towards the victory," Bitzer said.

North Carolina Moves Up In Primary Prominence

Candidates are looking for a magic number of delegates to secure their party's nomination: 1,990 delegates to be exact, to win this contested Democratic primary. Each state is worth a certain number of delegates -- and about three-quarters of the delegates needed to win the party's nomination will be doled out by the end of Super Tuesday.

North Carolina is a player now. Prior to moving this primary, they weren't. -- NC Rep. David Lewis

North Carolina has more delegates than most of the other early primary states.

"Behind only Texas and California, we're the biggest state," said state representative David Lewis, referring to the Super Tuesday states plus the earliest elections in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

As a Republican leader in the North Carolina House, Lewis helped shepherd the bill that moved up the primary date. The bill got broad bipartisan support in its final vote -- after lawmakers agreed to delay implementation until the 2020 presidential primary to avoid conflicting with the design of new General Assembly district maps.

"We wanted to give North Carolina voters a chance to have their voices heard and to really count," Lewis said.

Voting on Super Tuesday gives a state more influence in the race to choose a party's candidate. California, Utah and Maine are joining North Carolina in moving their primaries to Super Tuesday this year from summertime elections.

"Because by the time May gets here, the race for the Democratic nomination for president is going to be over," Lewis said. "North Carolina is a player now. Prior to moving this primary, they weren't."

Scroll through the tables below to see where North Carolina stood in importance in recent contested Democratic primaries. States are listed in order from the earliest primaries to the latest. When several states vote the same day, they are then ordered by how many delegates they have, as represented by the size of the blue squares. Hover over a square to see the election day and number of delegates. See how North Carolina rises up through the ranks from near the bottom of the list in 2008 to near the top in 2020.

Earlier Primary Affects State Offices, With Advantage For Incumbents

The presidential race was the big motivator for changing the primary date, but all the down-ballot races for North Carolina offices move, too, and that has consequences.

"Moving up the primary significantly supports incumbency," said North Carolina Representative Graig Meyer.

Meyer recruits new Democratic candidates to challenge sitting lawmakers. This year, he says he had to work harder and faster.

"Even in just brass tacks, it was difficult to get people to sign up to register by December 20, and then realize that over the next two weeks that normally would be their holiday they were going to have to figure out how to fill out all the campaign paperwork and launch a campaign," Meyer said.

Time is on incumbents' side, because they generally know in advance if they want to run for re-election and they have name recognition among voters. Challengers used to have about 5 months to mount their campaigns against sitting legislators in the General Assembly.

"But right now you only basically have January, February and the first three days of March," Meyer said.

Lewis said he's thought a lot about the advantage the primary date change gives to incumbents.

"And that was actually one of the initial push backs that I had to the idea of moving the primary," Lewis said.

Lewis said the General Assembly also floated the idea of holding two primaries -- one in March for the presidential race and another in May for state offices -- but that comes at a cost. In North Carolina, county governments bear the burden of funding elections.

"Well, then you're having the counties pay for two complete elections," Lewis said. "And that, to me just didn't seem like a fair thing to ask the county taxpayers to do."

Is The New Primary Getting NC More Attention?

So here we are, voting in just five weeks. But has the move brought North Carolina more early attention from presidential candidates?

Voter Ben Davis said he's enjoying the attention North Carolina is getting from Democratic presidential candidates like Mike Bloomberg.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

"I think so, and I think it's justified. I think North Carolina is a very large swing state for the first time," said voter Ben Davis, who attended Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg's opening of a campaign field office.

Bloomberg, a billionaire many times over, has certainly poured a lot of his abundant resources into North Carolina, buying up tv ad time and opening field offices not only in Raleigh and Charlotte, but also in smaller cities like Fayetteville and Winston-Salem.

However, his North Carolina campaign spokewoman LaToya Evans said the state's move to Super Tuesday had no effect on his strategy to target "delegate-rich Southern states" like us. 

Voter Madhavi Krevat and her daughter Leah Krevat attended a Mike Bloomberg event in Raleigh. She hopes the earlier primary date will motivate voters.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC

Voter Madhavi Krevat also attended Bloomberg's Raleigh campaign event in December, just to check him out. She said she thinks the primary date move is both good and bad.

"March is kind of soon, it's kind of sudden," Krevat said. "There are some candidates who are just gearing up now, so they've had to scramble, so that might be a bad thing. But the good thing is that it might get people more motivated."

Representative Lewis says, maybe the most unfortunate thing about moving the primary date to March, is that the election never seems to end. So get used to even more ads.