Guide To The North Carolina Primary

Learn more about the North Carolina Primary and its influence on the 2020 presidential nomination process.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

When is the North Carolina primary?

The North Carolina primary is on Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020, along with thirteen other states, American Samoa and Democrats Abroad. Slightly earlier than previous primaries in North Carolina, the primaries will cover local, state and federal contests. Though North Carolina passed a law requiring voter ID after the previous voter ID law was struck down, that new law was blocked by a state appeals court and will not be in effect for the primary or, most likely, the general 2020 election.

How many winnable delegates does North Carolina offer?

The primaries in North Carolina work differently for Democrats and Republicans.


North Carolina offers Democrats a total of 122 delegates, 110 pledged delegates, and 12 unpledged or superdelegates. Each candidate with at least 15% of the vote wins delegates, but to avoid a runoff or second primary on May 12, 2020, one candidate must receive a total of at least 30% plus one.


Republicans in North Carolina vie for 71 delegates, some awarded from districts and some awarded state-wide. For 2020, in a complicated system, any candidate receiving 20% or more of the state-wide vote gets a proportionate share of those delegates. If only one candidate gets 20%, or one candidate gets 2/3rds of the vote, the three delegates per district become winner take all; otherwise, they’re shared between the top two, 2-1.

Who won in 2016?

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the North Carolina primary over Senator Bernie Sanders, 54.7% to 40.8%. As delegates are awarded proportionally, Clinton received 60 pledged delegates and 11 superdelegates; Sanders received 47 with two superdelegates.

On the Republican side, Donald Trump won. Trump received 40.2% of the vote, garnering 29 delegates. Ted Cruz got 36.8% of the vote, earning 27 delegates. In 2016 there was no threshold for earning delegates, so John Kasich, with 12.7% of the vote got 9 delegates and Marco Rubio, with 7.7% of the vote earned 6. There were no unbound delegates in the Republican contest, and the at-large delegates were required to say whether they would support a candidate they did not prefer.

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How does the North Carolina primary work?

In many ways, the North Carolina primary is the same for Democrats and Republicans. Both parties hold semi-closed primaries, which means only registered members of the party and unaffiliated voters can select a particular ballot. So registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters can obtain a Democratic ballot, but registered Republicans cannot, and vice-versa. In each primary, one candidate must garner at least 30% of the vote plus one, or there is a second, runoff primary, which would happen on May 12, 2020.

The parties differ in terms of the allocation of delegates. Democrats have to hit 15% of the vote threshold to receive delegates. In 2020, Republicans would require 20% of the vote. Democrats and Republicans allocate delegates at both the state-wide and district level, but the mechanics for Republicans are more complicated, as district delegates are winner-take-all if only one candidate reaches the 20% threshold or gets 2/3rds of the vote. Otherwise, those delegates are divided 2-1 between the top two Republicans.

How much impact does winning North Carolina have on the election?

North Carolina is considered a swing state, or a state that can go either Democratic or Republican from election cycle to election cycle. In 2016, Trump won the state over Clinton, 49.83% to 46.17%. In 2012, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) won over President Obama, so while the 15 electoral votes up for grabs are definitely helpful, they are not essential. In 2018, Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship.

Gerrymandering is the hottest topic in North Carolina elections, though not of direct impact on the presidential election. Courts found that the congressional districts of 2016 were drawn to specifically provide an advantage to Republicans, with maps created along racial lines. In 2018, with the new maps, Democrats picked up two more seats, but districts remained geared toward Republicans. Voters again challenged them. In December of 2019, an appeals court found there was not enough time to remap before the 2020 primaries. The Supreme Court ruled in June of 2019 that it did not have the jurisdiction to hear gerrymandering cases.

North Carolina’s voter ID law was initially struck in 2017 with the court ruling the law would “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Immediately after Voting Rights Act protections were limited by the Supreme Court, Republicans drafted the law, along with new voting restrictions for forms of voting utilized heavily by African Americans. A state constitutional amendment requiring voter ID passed in 2018, but on February 18, 2020, a state appeals panel blocked the implementation of that law for the March 3 primary and likely for the general election. A federal injunction against the voter ID law also stands.

Past winners of the North Carolina primary.

Here are the winners of the North Carolina primary in the modern primary era, listed by party:


  • 2016: Hillary Clinton
  • 2012: Barack Obama
  • 2008: Barack Obama
  • 2004: John Edwards
  • 2000: Al Gore
  • 1996: Bill Clinton
  • 1992: Bill Clinton
  • 1988: Al Gore
  • 1984: Walter Mondale
  • 1980: Jimmy Carter
  • 1976: Jimmy Carter
  • 1972: George Wallace


  • 2016: Donald Trump
  • 2012: Mitt Romney
  • 2008: John McCain
  • 2004: No Information; primary likely canceled
  • 2000: George W. Bush
  • 1996: Bob Dole
  • 1992: George H. W. Bush
  • 1988: George H. W. Bush
  • 1984: Ronald Reagan
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan
  • 1976: Ronald Reagan
  • 1972: Richard Nixon

The Rantt Rundown

North Carolina is one of 14 states holding its primary on March 3, 2020, or Super Tuesday. With a semi-closed primary, only members of the party or unaffiliated voters can obtain ballots; Democrats cannot vote in the Republican primary, nor Republicans in the Democratic. Democrats need at least 15% of the vote to get a portion of the 122 delegates up for grabs. Republicans would need 20% to win some of their 71 delegates, with the mechanics of how delegates are divided differing between the parties. Though not directly relevant to the presidential election, gerrymandering remains a vital topic in North Carolina politics, as does voter ID, which could prove very relevant. In the last two presidential election cycles, North Carolina has gone Republican, but it’s considered a swing state and elected Democrat Roy Cooper Governor in 2018.

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Rantt 101 // 2020 / Democratic Party / Democratic Primary / Elections / Republican Party / Republican Primary