In March 2016, during the United States presidential primary election season, a pivotal part of the process occurred in 12 states throughout the nation on the same day. Any political junkie will know the day we are talking about: Super Tuesday, when a big group of state primaries on a massive scale. A surprise win or disappointing loss on Super Tuesday can make or break candidates who, just a week prior, were considered the next favored presidential candidates for their parties according to pundits and experts.
We think of this landmark day in the U.S. as a sort of electoral boot camp that separates the lesser candidates from the ones ready for the general election. A massive wave of Democratic and Republican voters flock to the polls, making the previous primaries of that election almost irrelevant. This is all according to the plan of politics and history.
What is it about American politics that made it necessary for Super Tuesday to even exist? What are the mechanisms that allow such a large political behemoth, requiring so much organization, to work? What is it about this massive primary that makes some people call Super Tuesday a cumbersome monster in American politics?
What Is Super Tuesday?
Super Tuesday is the largest one-day nomination contest during the U.S. presidential primary for all political parties involved. Primaries held earlier in the season occur only at the pace of one or two states per day throughout the month of February. On this Tuesday in March, however, all that changes in a big way.
Digging Into The History
The first recorded mention of a "Super Tuesday" was during the 1976 presidential election. On Tuesday, May 25th, of that year Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan went against each other for control of six states. Four years later, the pivotal day was moved to March, and one more state joined the group to make it seven in one busy day.
In 1988. a group of moderate Southern Democratic governors championed the idea of Super Tuesday. It was part of a strategy to win the national election by moving votes to the center of the political spectrum. Some in the Democratic party were tired of decades of non-southern Democrats voting for candidates who, eventually, would lose the South and tip the scales on a national level.
The problem was that, to the chagrin of the Democratic establishment, the plan largely fell apart. Instead of their hopes of a Southern victory, ideological and racial lines split party votes. That led to the nomination of New Englander Michael Dukakis, who won just five states. Dukakis was decisively defeated by the Republican candidate George H. W. Bush in the general election. There was a redemption for Democrats in 1992 when Bill Clinton swept the primaries on that Super Tuesday to his eventual victory.
One Truly Massive Tuesday
The difficult and controversial 2008 election led to drastic measures. In a move meant to sort out presidential frontrunners earlier, our big day was moved to an earlier calendar date: February 5. Not only that, instead of 12 states, they more than doubled the number to 24. Like the Super Tuesday from 20 years before, this backfired for some sponsors as well. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ended in a virtual deadlock instead of one winning a clear primary victory. Republican candidate John McCain gained enough delegates to make Mitt Romney conceded defeat, however.
Where Does Super Tuesday Stand Now?
The most recent 2016 presidential primary set an ambitious, record-breaking number. It did not just hold to one Tuesday in March with a format of 12 states and the territory of American Samoa. It stretched into multiple days during the month. First, it continues to the Saturday of that week to “Super Saturday” in the states of Kansas, Maine, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Nebraska.
Next was Super Tuesday II on April 26 of that year, which covered the Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania primaries. Finally, a fourth Super Tuesday occurred on June 6 which covered the primaries and caucuses in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota. So, in effect, there are multiple super Tuesdays these days.
How Does It Work
The presidential primary election process has never been laid out in the Constitution or by amendment, but it is a process designed by both parties to allow evolution over time. On Super Tuesday, it is elected delegates, usually informed activists and local politicians, that presidential candidates are trying to woo for their votes. Because of the number of states they must reach in such a concentrated time, they have to go to as many as possible and know the concerns of the citizens there, whether the hot topic is coal, immigration, or labor, for example.
The presidential candidates for both parties must gain as many delegates as they can so that they can be considered the “winner”. Because of the number of states on Super Tuesday, the delegate count is gargantuan. In 2016, there were 1610 delegates for both major parties up for grabs. This number can be split up: 865 vs. 565 in the balance for the Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
Primary vs. Caucus Format
There are two ways voters voice their choice of candidates at this time of year. Your state may conduct either a primary or a caucus. A primary election is held by the state and allows registered voters to cast ballots for their desired candidate. There are different kinds of primaries with different stipulations as to who can vote in them.
Primaries are considered by some the more democratic way to choose a presidential candidate. A caucus, which is normally run by state party leadership, is a more centralized gathering for voters to decide on a candidate. Unlike the standard secret ballot, some caucuses ask voters that they publically declare their votes. Caucus voters tend to be politically and civically active than primary voters, according to research. Caucuses routinely have lower turnouts.
Problems With Primaries
Like many functions in American politics, Super Tuesday has its share of shortcomings. Because of the current primary voting schedule, it can be difficult to impossible for candidates to reach an acceptable cross-section of voters. Unable to get the details of their platform and message to voters successfully, it becomes harder for candidates to achieve a presidential image during this period.
Another potential danger is the strain on candidates' campaign support. Candidates traveling from state to state can hemorrhage available funds. When Super Tuesday does not deliver the desired result, the campaign budget can go bankrupt and end as a result of one bad day.
There is also no guarantee a Republican candidate will get a big win delegate-wise on Super Tuesday. The Republican National Committee has made rules in the effort to standardize voter-to-influence ratios. It remains a possibility that, while a candidate may win Super Tuesday, they would not get as many delegates as people thought they would based on the reported result for that day.
Enter: The Superdelegates
When the Democratic Party looked for ways to keep out renegade candidates, they created a distinction between unelected and unpledged delegates — usually selected from a pool of politically influential people — that can vote for a candidate however they see fit. Those “superdelegates” cover around 15 percent of the delegates who attend the Democratic national convention.
There are voters who consider the existence of superdelegates unfair, or downright undemocratic because those 712 delegates have more power than others. They believe the increased attention superdelegates receive affects voting decisions that can negatively affect worthy candidates who deserve the nomination.
Why Is This Such A Pivotal Day?
One of the major reasons Super Tuesday came about was to counter the inflated importance of opening primary in Iowa. There is an undeniable amount of influence held by that primary, as shown by past elections, and politicians and analysts alike needed a powerful answer to the Hawkeye State issue.
Testing For The Election
There is another underlying reason to hold a Super Tuesday-like event, other than picking up a massive number of delegates. Political consultants and analysts review the results intensively because of the broad geographic and demographic fields involved. That makes Super Tuesday the first real test of a presidential candidate’s electability in the general election. It also helps train a campaign team in managing for a national election to come.
Super Tuesday also serves as a barometer of sorts for opposing parties. Candidates from either side can see how votes are doing in relation to those from the other. This has an importance of its own if the candidate on one side is clearly ahead of front-runner of the opposing party.
This 30-year electoral tradition has grown over the years since its inception. Some welcome the big day while critics decry it as a bloated mess that does not adequately reflect the will of the people. The ever-changing rules of primaries, such as the changes in rules for superdelegates made in 2018, might start the repairs needed to put Super Tuesday on the right track.
Bill Clinton is a famous example of a candidate who climbed out of a precarious beginning after securing Southern states on Super Tuesday, eventually winning the nomination and the 1992 election. When Super Tuesday 2020 comes around, it is important to understand the important issues at hand. The political showdown is key, but what should never be overshadowed is the good governance of the American people.