Checking in with America’s primary election junkie

Josh Putnam
Josh Putnam

This is Josh Putnam’s time.

Every four years, the former Davidson College political scientist becomes a shooting star in presidential politics, one of America’s go-to experts on the arcane rules of delegate selection.

His blog, called FrontloadingHQ, is a primary primer for political junkies. He’s quoted by TV pundits, bloggers and newspapers from New York to Los Angeles.

The Charlotte-born Putnam, who grew up up in Gastonia, traces his interest in politics to 1984, when his parents took him to a rally for Democrat Jim Hunt’s U.S. Senate campaign.

Now a lecturer at the University of Georgia, Putnam, 38, knows the speed bumps and traffic markers on the road to the White House. With the Democratic primary more or less set, I asked him about the Republican race. Here’s an edited version of the interview.

Q. Republicans hope to pick a nominee earlier than in the past. Will that happen?

A. I don’t think we have a good answer to that question right now. It’s real easy to see scenarios where, once we get through the primaries and caucuses in June, we have an indeterminate result. But if we look at the historical pattern the process tends to resolve itself sooner rather than later.

Right now it’s chaos, and we’ve got 14 candidates involved. But once the votes begin to be cast, usually things start to settle down a little bit.

Q. Will Iowa and New Hampshire winnow the field?

A. We don’t have any real evidence to suggest that they won’t. How it winnows is the big question. We’ve got a pretty clear top tier of candidates who’ve emerged. So the pressure’s going to be on the candidates not in that group to really reconsider things. One can see scenarios where this thing winnows down pretty quickly to three or four candidates.

Q. How important will the March 1 “Super Tuesday” primaries be?

A. All the process questions about how meaningful a certain primary or group of primaries is dependent on how the field has been winnowed down.

We may end up after Super Tuesday with something that’s kind of muddled in terms of who’s emerging and who’s not emerging. But if three or four viable candidates enter those contests, we could also get some clarity out of those March 1 primaries and caucuses.

Q. You’ve said the field will eventually narrow to a frontrunner and an alternative. Could that happen by the time North Carolina votes March 15?

A. It’s entirely possible. Again, we’re talking about a sequential process and given that, it’s likely to winnow down to a leader and someone who’s vying to be the alternative to the front runner. A lot of it’s going to depend on what happens to Donald Trump in all this once the voting starts. He’s a wild card.

Q. Will North Carolina and its proportional awarding of delegates still be relevant on March 15?

A. Yeah. A lot’s going to depend on the state of the race at that point and particularly in winner-take-all states (like Florida and Ohio). If it looks like they are off the table (for some candidates), that brings North Carolina and Missouri more into play. North Carolina potentially offers a good group of delegates for someone, even if it’s proportional.

Q. What’s the likelihood of getting to the GOP convention without a nominee?

A. Just given the way this process historically works, it’s a pretty low probability. It’s tough to run through 56 contests and not have things winnowed down to a decided leader.

Q. So looking into your crystal ball, when will we know the nominee?

A. We’re likely going to be close by the end of April.