Super Tuesday Preview
Today is Super Tuesday, often referred to as the most important day on the primary calendar. The states that vote today are home to almost 20 million more people than the entire population of the United Kingdom, and the 595 Republican and 1,004 Democratic delegates on offer represent almost half the total needed to win each party’s nomination. In every presidential election since 1988, the winner of the most states on Super Tuesday for either party has gone on to be the nominee.
This year, there will be Democratic and Republican primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia, while Minnesota will hold Democratic and Republican caucuses, and Alaska and Colorado will caucus for Republicans and Democrats respectively. The US territory of American Samoa will hold a Democratic caucus for their six delegates on offer, and Democrat-supporting US expats are voting too, with the organisation ‘Democrats Abroad’ treated like a state for nominating purposes.
The set up of Super Tuesday inevitably favours some candidates over others. Having to fight several states at once favours well-known candidates with a broad national reach – those who are better on television than in town halls. It also favours those who are strong in the South, due to the overrepresentation of states from that area. This is no accident – fostering greater southern influence in presidential nominating contests was the reason Super Tuesday was created in the first place. Finally, it also favours the candidate with momentum from the opening states. If today’s contests were broken up, they would influence each other and the impact of the first few states would dissipate. Packaged together, they multiply the importance of the opening contests and so reward frontrunners.
With the above in mind, it should be unsurprising that Hillary Clinton is leading in the Democratic races. With her excellent nationwide organisation, she is better suited to fighting on several fronts at once than her competitor Bernie Sanders, and she is currently leading by large margins across the South. Furthermore, she is coming off the back of a win by more than 47 points in South Carolina. Her win in that state was inevitable, but the margin will surely have an effect on today’s contests.
It is easy to paint the story of the Democratic side of the equation in broad strokes. Clinton will do well in places with a higher proportion of black people and conservative Democrats, Sanders in places that are whiter and more liberal. These are relative terms, however. While Clinton is likely to essentially sweep the South and Sanders should win by a landslide in his home state of Vermont, there are four states that appear competitive: Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oklahoma. It is here that we will see the effect of Clinton’s momentum. Small victories for either candidate in any of these states may not make much difference to the delegate count, but if Sanders emerged from Super Tuesday having been beaten 10-1 in states, it would be difficult to argue a comeback was possible.
On the Republican side, the prognosis is as inevitable as it is unbelievable. In terms of states won and delegates earned, Donald Trump is going to win. In the North and in the South, in liberal states and conservative ones, in religious states and secular ones, Donald Trump is going to win. It is a disturbing thought, although for those who oppose Trump, the good news is that all of today’s states award delegates on a proportional basis. Were today’s primaries all winner-take-all, the race could very well be all but over tomorrow.
The delegate allocation rules are complicated and vary from state to state, but in general they are handed out on the basis of local results (first and second place in each congressional district win delegates) and overall popular vote. Most states set a bar of 20% as the lowest point at which a candidate can take a share of the statewide delegates, and 50% as the level at which a candidate wins all of them.
What this means is that what happens underneath Trump’s victories matters. The 20% bar for delegates in states such as Georgia and Tennessee where Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are both polling at about that level means that a very small variation in votes could mean a big difference in the size of Trump’s bounty. Likewise, the rules for allocation of local delegates makes winning second place important. If Cruz and Rubio just trade these second-place finishes across the nation, Trump will end the night much further ahead of his closest challenger than if one of the senators managed to step out ahead of the other.
Of course, even with delegates handed out proportionally, winning states is important. Not just for the lion’s share of the delegates, but for image and momentum. Cruz and Rubio are essentially tied on delegates heading in to Super Tuesday, but as Cruz likes to remind Rubio, of the pair of them only he has won a state. Should Rubio fail to win any today, which is very possible, that will be 15 states without a win. This may not be as bad as it sounds for Rubio. The proportional system means that he could end up with a sizeable delegate count even with no wins, and he has a favourable run of states coming up (Nate Cohn outlines how Rubio could ‘lose every state on Super Tuesday and still win’ in detail on the New York Times’ Upshot blog), but it becomes harder and harder to make an electability argument if you keep losing contests.
Unlike Rubio, Ted Cruz has to win a state today. Fortunately for Cruz, he probably will, and even more fortunately it is his delegate-rich home state of Texas. Texas is the only state in which Trump does not lead in the polls, and if Cruz is unable to win there, it is difficult to see a route to the nomination for him. Rubio may win Minnesota or Virginia, but if he doesn’t, he will still have his home state of Florida and a number of demographically advantageous states with winner-take-all delegate allocation systems just ahead of him. If Cruz doesn’t win Texas, or any of the other southern heavily religious states in play today, it is hard to see where he can.