North Carolina is poised to play a significant role in the Republican presidential race for the first time in almost 40 years.
Even if Mitt Romney — who currently leads the delegate count at 565 — wins 100 percent of the vote in all the state primaries hereafter, he still won’t have the required 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination before the state’s primary on May 8.
The state last played a role in the Republican presidential primaries in 1976 with Ronald Reagan’s upset victory against incumbent President Gerald Ford in a March primary.
Ford was eventually named the nominee at a brokered Republican National Convention.
James Stimson, a political science professor at UNC, said part of the reason the Republican nomination process has lasted so long this year is due to a change in the rules.
“Usually a primary campaign is about momentum. This one is very unusual in the sense that it keeps dragging on,” he said. “Romney will still have a fight on his hands come May, so the North Carolina primary will matter.”
In a primary, a state’s delegates are awarded to either the winner of the popular vote or on a proportional basis. North Carolina will award its delegates on a proportional basis this year, meaning the 55 delegates will be divided among all the candidates based on the number of votes they receive.
“(Republicans) made more states proportional rather than winner take all, and that directly effects how soon you can wrap it up,” Stimson said.
Stimson said he is surprised the Republicans changed the primary rules because Democrats have been at a disadvantage by dividing their delegates proportionally.
“I don’t know why the Republicans have followed suit. They’re probably regretting it now,” he said.
Jonathan Kappler, research director for the pro-business N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, said the Republican party’s difficulties are due to the candidates themselves rather than a change in rules.
“A lot of nationally recognized candidates that a lot of folks thought were good, leading contenders opted out and didn’t run,” Kappler said, citing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as examples. “That left the field a little bit unsettled.”
Those high-profile non-candidates drew attention away from the actual candidates when people began to feel dissatisfied with the current field, Kappler said, leading to “a campaign of fits and starts.”
According to a poll by Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning firm based in Raleigh, Mitt Romney leads the Republican field in North Carolina. The poll shows that 31 percent would vote for Romney, compared to 27 percent for Rick Santorum, 24 percent for Newt Gingrich and 8 percent for Ron Paul. The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
The numbers change dramatically if Gingrich drops out. In that case, Santorum has the lead with 42 percent, Romney has 38 percent, and Paul has 10 percent.
It’s unlikely Gingrich will bow out of the race before the primary. He is the only candidate with any kind of campaign infrastructure in the state and is expected to visit Raleigh on Wednesday, according to reports from the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
“North Carolina will be a key state in the Republican primary process and a crucial battleground state in the fall of 2012,” Gingrich said in a statement in December.
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