In the natural order of presidential elections, the top vote-getter in any state is almost always the winning presidential candidate.
Presidential candidates usually receive the highest number of votes since it is the most important office in the land. Next in line is usually the winning governor and then the winning U.S. Senate candidate depending on the competitiveness and intensity of each race.
In 2016, North Carolina voters turned electoral politics on its head.
President Donald Trump came in fifth in statewide voting behind Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler by 136,731 votes; Commissioner of Labor Cheri Berry by 117,000 votes; Sen. Richard Burr and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. He did finish ahead of Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein as well as his opponent Hillary Clinton, who finished 10th in statewide voting.
Steve Troxler 2,499,362 Secretary of Agriculture
Cheri Berry 2,479,804 Commissioner of Labor
Richard Burr 2,395,376 U.S. Senator
Dan Forest 2,369,876 Lt. Governor
Donald Trump 2,362,631 President
Roy Cooper 2,309,157 Governor
Pat McCrory 2,298,880 Governor
Josh Stein 2,276,410 Attorney General
Buck Newton 2,256,025 Attorney General
Hillary Clinton 2,189,316 President
Deborah Ross 2,128,165 Senate
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan received 1,346,481 votes to lead all vote-getters in North Carolina. Jim Martin came in second 138,314 votes behind with 1,208,167 votes to win the Executive Mansion. Sen. Jesse Helms came in third with 1,156,768 votes to defeat two-term Gov. Jim Hunt, who garnered 1,070,488 votes.
Maybe North Carolinians were turned off by the miasma of negative ads in the 2016 presidential race. Maybe none of the presidential or gubernatorial candidates were as personably likable as Secretary Troxler, Commissioner Berry, Sen. Burr, Lt. Gov. Forest.
Maybe President Trump should get his picture pasted on every elevator wall in the state like Cheri Berry has done.
What does it portend for 2020?
Perhaps nothing. No voter turnout is exactly like any other turnout in the past. Different percentages of gender and racial groups show up to vote in each election depending on what motivates them from the campaign. Even seemingly insignificant small changes in turnout percentages among women, African Americans or Hispanics have profound effects on the final raw vote for all candidates.
If turnout comes close to a “normal” presidential year in North Carolina, Trump reasonably can be expected to out-poll Troxler and perhaps garner well over 2.5 million votes. His coattails, defined as his ability to pull out conservative voters across the state, would be expected to help Republicans down the ballot.
Can Lt. Gov. Forest defeat Gov. Cooper?
If everyone who voted for Forest and for Cooper in 2016 voted exactly the same in 2020, Forest will win by 60,719 votes, 50.6% to 49.4%.
If Trump leads statewide voting with 2.5 million-plus votes, Forest could possibly increase his 2016 total by at least another 50,000 votes to get more than 2.4 million votes.
Cooper would have to increase his 2016 vote totals by close to 4% to defeat Forest in that case. That would be especially hard if the top of the Democratic ticket for president is socialist Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, which will deflate turnout from moderate Democrats in the state. It will be difficult even if former VP Joe Biden is at the top of the ticket given his propensity for gaffes and 100% adherence to the failed policies of President Obama which have been magnified by the performance of the economy since Election Day 2016.
Nothing ever stays the same in politics. North Carolina will either revert to the mean in 2016 and have the presidential vote exceed all other vote totals and boost the vote of down–ballot candidates, or we will be setting a new standard where the secretary of agriculture is more important to North Carolinians than who sits in the White House as commander-in-chief wielding the most powerful executive powers in the world.