The presidential primary carnival comes to North Carolina

By: - March 8, 2016 4:30 am

wb-308CCampaign spurs high emotions, but mostly ignores local issues

For those who harbor any doubts about how wacky and illogical the American presidential primary season has become, what’s happening this week in North Carolina ought to dispel them.

Indeed, it’s actually quite appropriate that Donald Trump’s appearance in Cabarrus County yesterday featured an endorsement by NASCAR boss Brian France and former driver Mark Martin, because the campaign itself has come to resemble the NASCAR circuit. Each week, campaign “teams” trailed by caravans of fans, journalists and hangers on descend on new “markets,” bombarding them with ads and loads of ear splitting sound and fury before wrapping it up with a contest on the final day and then departing before light the next morning.

It’s also not unlike a carnival or state fair as each weekly spectacle features barkers, performers, schlocky sales scammers, freak shows and “rides” that leave customers back where they started (and, often, slightly nauseous).

Generic speeches

As for the illogic of the whole exercise, consider the fact that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire – two mostly rural and homogenous states – got to hear from and examine the candidates for months, if not years, while voters in North Carolina – a much larger and more diverse, representative and important state – will get just a few days.

In Iowa, there was scarcely a coffee shop that candidates weren’t expected to visit or a corn subsidy they weren’t expected to know inside and out. Here it’ll just be a handful of generic speeches to generic, as-large-as-possible crowds.

See, for example, the summary of the talk given by candidate spouse Heidi Cruz this past weekend at the “Conservative Leadership Conference” sponsored by the Raleigh-based Pope-Civitas Institute. Here are some scintillating “highlights”:

We are in a crisis, but to survive we have to rally behind a president who is committed to the Constitution, Heidi Cruz, wife of the Texas senator, told CLC Saturday.

We only win when we get behind the voters,’ she said, and the party must realize that.

That’s why she has been on the campaign trail for so long — so that she’s noticed how much alike a certain chain’s hotels are.

She points to how Cruz won his first election in Texas. ‘They saw in Ted someone with a backbone in conservative principles,’ she said.

What she fell in love with about him matters for the election, she said.

He grew up with conservative principles. ‘Do you know where Ted’s steel backbone comes from? His mother.’”

(As an aside, how the officially and legally nonpartisan and tax exempt Civitas group managed to host a candidate spokesperson in the middle of an election despite what would appear to be explicit Internal Revenue Service prohibitions is a bit of a mystery.)

Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton barnstormed across the state yesterday touting his wife’s candidacy, while Secretary Clinton herself is expected to be in the state on Thursday. And though the former President gets at least a few points for mentioning the state’s failure to expand Medicaid, his talks was mostly generalities. This is from

“‘She always makes something good happen, and that’s what you want in a president,’ Bill Clinton said of his wife, listing her past successes with expanding preschool, public health and legal aid programs in rural areas and her efforts as U.S. senator and secretary of state to help with disaster recovery and curb nuclear proliferation.”

The same article described Trump’s Cabarrus County talk this way:

In Concord, Trump entertained a raucous crowd estimated at more than 3,000 at the Cabarrus Arena with his usual blend of campaign trash talk, personal promotion and an almost stream-of-consciousness talk about rebuilding everything from the public education system to the military while bringing jobs back to the U.S.

Our country doesn’t win anymore. We’re going to start winning again,’ he said, promising to defeat Islamic State forces, repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace Common Core with state-by-state academic standards.

Trump referred to his two main rivals, Ted Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, as ‘lyin’ Ted Cruz’ and ‘little Marco,’ and he yelled, ‘Go home to Mommy’ at one of the handful of protesters who were removed from the event.”

The North Carolina reality candidates are ignoring

Of course, the tragedy in all of this is that there are dozens of issues of vital importance to North Carolina voters that a truly caring and engaged presidential candidate might address if he or she had the time and/or inclination.

The state has, after all, served as a kind of moldy petri dish for conservative politicians during the past five years – a fact documented at great length in a special N.C. Policy Watch report released last December entitled Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina. Here’s how we put it then:

Where once the state was widely regarded and frequently celebrated as a Southern outlier and an outpost of forward-thinking attitudes and policies, strict conformance with modern conservative ideology is now the order of the day….

The results of this dramatic shift are readily evident in the increasingly underfunded and fragile public structures that once undergirded the middle class. Even as conservatives describe every new job as part of a miraculous ‘Carolina Comeback’ and blame every plant closing or shuttered hospital on the Obama administration, the plain fact is that North Carolina is a darker, drabber, more divided and less hopeful place than it ought to be several years into an economic recovery.

Consider the following:

  • Median incomes are down.
  • Most counties have fewer jobs than they did prior to the Great Recession.
  • State expenditures, as a percentage of total state personal income, are at a 40-year low and the responsibility for funding government has been shifted away from the wealthy and profitable corporations and onto the poor and middle class.
  • The state’s once middle-of-the-pack social safety net stands torn and threadbare.
  • Thousands of North Carolinians die prematurely each year for want of access to affordable health care.
  • Schoolteachers, university professors and other public employees are a dispirited, underpaid and increasingly overwhelmed group.
  • Compliance with environmental protection laws has been made voluntary for polluters.
  • The state’s once-burgeoning voter participation rates have been depressed by new and restrictive laws.
  • Narrow sectarian religious views have been elevated over the fundamental rights of women and LGBTQ citizens.
  • Laws to abet the spread of guns and, indeed, to treat them as near-sacred icons stand triumphant.”

Primary date change fails to deliver

Given the fact that next Tuesday’s primary will take place on the same day as primaries in Florida (an absolute must-win for Rubio), Ohio (an absolute must-win for Kasich), Illinois and Missouri, it’s hard to imagine that any of the candidates or surrogates blowing through North Carolina in the coming days will take the time to really grasp, much less thoughtfully address, what’s really going on here.

Indeed, rather than focusing lots more attention on the state (as General Assembly leaders had promised would occur when they moved up the primary from May to March last year) North Carolina’s expedited election seems just as likely to have diminished the state’s national profile. Indeed, had lawmakers retained the traditional May primary, it’s at least conceivable now that the state could have been a true difference maker in the GOP nominating process – maybe even a decisive player. As it stands now, however, the state is mostly lost in the shuffle.

The only saving grace in all of this, of course, is that there are still eight months to go to the November election. Perhaps some major candidate will take the time between now and then to understand and thoughtfully address some of what’s been going on here. In what ultimately remains a deeply “purple” state, such an approach could be a winning strategy. Stay tuned.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.