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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

U.S. Senate GOP Runoff Looks Likely

Now that we are entering the home stretch of the May primary election, we still seem to lack a true frontrunner in the GOP nomination contest for the U.S. Senate. 

While most polls show Thom Tillis, speaker of the NC House of Representatives, leading the field, the numbers across several different polls indicate a larger percentage of the potential electorate still has not made up their minds regarding the eight candidates.

Even with his recent media presence and fundraising advantage, Tillis remains unable to gain traction to the necessary 40% of the primary vote in order to avoid a summer runoff. 

Much of what will happen in the final few weeks will be made by a small group of voters, with conventional wisdom being that most GOP primary election voters may be among the true party believers, and therefore the more conservative among the party faithful.

In North Carolina, primary elections that determine each party’s nominee are “semi-closed,” meaning that only registered voters of the party may cast a ballot in the election, or, if the party allows it, registered unaffiliated voters may participate in one party’s primary, but not both. 

One of the key questions about the upcoming primary election is, like many elections, who will show up to vote?

Looking back at the last two primary elections in non-presidential years in North Carolina, it is not surprising that the vast majority of ballots in the Democratic and Republican party primaries came from registered partisan voters.

In 2010, 17% of registered Republican voters cast ballots in the GOP primary, with 15% of registered Democrats voting in their party’s primary.

Even combining the numbers of unaffiliated voters participating in both party primaries, their turnout was only 8% of registered unaffiliated voters.

Another facet of the primary electorate will be that the votes skew heavily to an older electorate.  In the 2006 and 2010 primaries, three-quarters of the Democratic primary voters were over the age of 41, while 81% of the GOP primary voters were over the age of 41.

In comparison, the 2012 general election saw 68% of voters casting ballots who were 41 years old or older. 

Although we don’t have any sense of the ideology of the 2006 and 2010 primary voters who cast ballots, most pollsters are predicting the GOP primary electorate as somewhere between 70% and 72% ‘conservative’ in their ideological orientation. 

One of the major questions about Tillis’ run for the party’s nomination was whether he can appeal to the conservative wing of the party. In two recent polls, Tillis is preferred by self-identified conservative voters, albeit with only 26% and 19% of ‘conservative’ voters.

With a smaller turnout in off-presidential years and nobody gaining the traction needed in the GOP Senate field, the likelihood is strong for a summer runoff.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is an associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College, where he also serves as the 2011-2012 Swink Professor for Excellence in Classroom Teaching and the chair of the department of history & politics. A native South Carolinian, he holds graduate degrees in both history and political science from Clemson University and The University of Georgiaââ