North Carolina may see slimmed down GOP field

Published 12:05 am Saturday, January 30, 2016

Iowa voters next week will be the first Americans to cast ballots in the U.S. presidential race. By the time North Carolinians vote on March 15, however, the field of candidates may look quite different.

Even after he skipped a Fox News debate on Thursday — the last before Iowa’s elections on Monday — businessman Donald Trump remains the consensus leader in the Republican presidential field. Catawba Politics professor Michael Bitzer said Thursday’s debate featured more substantive policy discussions without Trump. In an interview with the Salisbury Post, Republican National Committeewoman Dr. Ada Fisher echoed Bitzer’s assessment, and specifically noted a number of direct questions about candidates’ previous statements on immigration by debate moderators. She said candidates lower in polls also received more talking time.

Although candidates continue to fight for debate time and votes, Bitzer said it’s likely to see the lowest-performing candidates drop out of the race before North Carolinia’s Republican voters cast ballots on March 15. One reason: half of America’s primary elections occur before North Carolina.

“The bottom of the pack will not survive,” Bitzer said. “It could be a truly whittled down field when we finally get to North Carolina. Funding is going to dry up and campaign staff is probably going to leave for some. Supporters will start looking around at other, viable candidates.”

He said the bottom tier of candidates will “simply run out of gas.”

For months, Trump has puzzled political analysts. Outlandish statements have only boosted poll numbers. Fisher nicknamed the phenomenon “Trumpetize.” Describing her term, Fisher said the media give Trump a bounty of publicity, which may remove the need for previous political traditions such as shaking hands and meeting voters across states.

“How is that going to affect things in the future,” she asked. “Will that be a new dynamic in how candidates campaign?”

Bitzer still says grassroots organizing — “the ground game” — is still paramount. Polling data consistently shows Trump as a leader, but Bitzer said a number of voters may go into polls undecided or decide at the last minute.

“Some things we just don’t know until they show up,” he said.

So far, North Carolina hasn’t seen many political appearances from Republican candidates. Fisher said North Carolina will likely be an important battleground state during the general election, but she easily counted the limited number of political appearances by Republican presidential candidates.

“Early states have pulled all the campaign workers there so people can win in early states,” she said. “The more you win, the more your campaign funding increases. Because our primary is later than states like Iowa and New Hampshire, we don’t have that many politicians asking people to vote.”

If Trump’s grassroots infrastructure is weak, Bitzer pondered whether Trump could come in second in a state.

“I think Trump is certainly capturing a segment of disaffected Republicans, and he is going to be able to capitalize on that,” Bitzer said. “But, can he continue his winner philosophy? He’s marching around the various states saying he’s winning in the polls so, therefore, he’s a winner. What happens if he comes in second?”

A candidate who finishes second or third in North Carolina will receive delegates — which help determine the party’s nominee — proportional to his or her place. For example, a candidate who finishes fifth in North Carolina will still receive delegates, but less than a person in second or third. The South Carolina primary is one of many “winner take all” states, which means the first place finisher receives all of the state’s delegates.

When asked, Bitzer and Fisher both said the Republican race has received more attention than the Democratic race.

Once it’s time for the general election, Bitzer said there’s some concern about backlash against Republicans because of the amount of attention on the race. Some voters may not like the views by candidates. By the general election, however, Bitzer said it’s more likely voters would have decided who they are voting for.

Fisher said debates during the general election will show voters that Democrats have failed on issues such as terrorism, Planned Parenthood and immigration.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.