North Carolina Democrats may be in for a rare treat in May: a presidential primary vote that counts.
Generally, the state's May 6 primary election, more than four months after Iowa and New Hampshire and three after Super Tuesday, comes well after both parties have informally selected their nominee.
But that could all change this year with the Democratic race still deadlocked after 35 state primaries.
"People like both candidates a lot, and in a situation like that, it's possible for [the race] to continue for a very long time until someone gets a decisive lead," said John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University professor of political science.
In presidential primaries, votes are used to allocate delegates to the party's national convention, which then selects the nominee. For the Democratic Party, a candidate must win 2,025 delegates to be awarded the nomination.
Following victories this week in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Illinois Senator Barack Obama leads the race with 1,210 delegates to New York Senator Hillary Clinton's 1,188, according to The Associated Press.
Between now and May 6, Democrats will award 671 additional delegates in 10 races. That total does not include the "superdelegates," a collection of Democratic Party officials and elected leaders chosen from each state who do not have to commit to a candidate before the convention.
Because securing the nomination before May is a mathematical impossibility, the race will likely continue through early summer unless one of the candidates can gain enough momentum to force the other to drop out, said Jerry Meek, chair of the N.C. Democratic Party.
"With the data we're polling right now, it seems unlikely that things will get tied up anytime soon," he said.
North Carolina's contest will award 134 Democratic delegates, which may prove decisive in a race where the margin of victory is likely to be razor thin, said David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science.
This number reflects a 25-percent "bonus" in delegates given by the Democratic National Committee for agreeing to hold a late primary. Most states forgo the extra votes in order to send voters to the polls while there are still likely to be two or more candidates in the race.
"The front-loading of the race is a real problem for the whole process," Aldrich said. "[The primaries] get so far removed from the general election that it's really more like having two elections. It's fragmented and broken."
Meek said North Carolina's late primary, although disappointing to voters focused on the presidential race, is beneficial to candidates for state offices who have trouble competing with the money, visibility and resources of presidential campaigns.
"Not having a competitive presidential race when you're voting for state level races allows the gubernatorial candidates and others a lot more exposure," Meek said.
But he also noted that presidential races increase turnout and draw voters who are interested only in national elections, a group that includes many traditionally underrepresented segments of society, including minorities.
"We may see a major change in the make-up of the electorate this year," Meek said.
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