What is Super Tuesday?

On Tuesday, March 3 public attention in the United States will be completely dominated by Super Tuesday. The day is in fact destined to represent a turning point in the primary elections to nominate the presidential candidates for the Democratic party.

Super Tuesday: a Key Day in American Politics

For over thirty years “Super Tuesdays” have been a fixture of America’s leading parties, representing the first wide-ranging national contest for candidates aiming to take part in the White House elections in November of the electoral year. Given that Donald Trump‘s nomination is taken for granted in the Republican party — which on that day will formally stage the caucuses and primaries in 11 States — all eyes today are set on the Democratic contest which will be battled out in fifteen primaries: voting in fourteen states of the Union and the choice of American residents living abroad.

Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia will be voting to establish which of the Democratic candidates will prevail: February’s vote indicated the socialist-inspired Vermont senator Bernie Sanders as the man to beat. However centrist former Vice-president Joe Biden — winner in the recent South Carolina primary — is by no means out of the game, while the surprise drop out of young technocrat and former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg has relaunched billionaire former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg as a possible third wheel.

1,344 of the 3,979 Democratic National Convention delegates who will be voting for the White House candidate will be contended during the 3 March contests, in States ranging from the traditional blue strongholds of the east (Vermont, Virginia, Massachusets) and west (California) to the conservative states of the deep South which are mainly Trump’s electoral domain. Today is set to be one of the most decisive Super Tuesdays of all time. Rarely has a Super Tuesday fulfilled the function for which the parties implemented it over the last decades: to indicate ahead of time the dominant line in the nominations race in order to identify the party’s true front-runner. As polarization between the two predominant parties becomes more marked — and Biden and Sanders’ race heats up — Super Tuesday is becoming more decisive.

In the 1980s Democrats and Republicans decided to introduce the primary election system, which involved voting in numerous states. They did this in order to mediate the growing internal criticism institution and due to the fear of the less numerous and less influential states causing a representational gap in the choice of presidential candidates.

The Democrats, in their search for a contender to stand up against Ronald Reagan in 1984 carried out experimental polls in five states on three different Tuesdays. And so the expression “Super Tuesday” was coined. It was during the last of the three Tuesdays that Walter Mondale obtained the mathematical certainty of his campaign winning in California, West Virginia, New Jersey, South Dakota and New Mexico.

Jimmy Carter e Walter Mondale, a destra (LaPresse)
Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale (right) – La Presse

The first joint “Super Tuesday” with the staging of both Democratic and Republican primaries occurred during the following electoral round in 1988. The initiative was put forward by the southern states (Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia) who requested a common regional vote in order to spur candidates to focus on their requests. A domino effect led to Democrats voting simultaneously on March 8 in 21 States of the Union and territories, paving the way for a two-man challenge between Michael Dukakis and Jesse Jackson, while Republicans did the same in 17 States, with 16 being triumphantly secured by Vice-president George H. W. Bush — who was able to conquer the nomination and plan his successful assault on the White House the following November in complete tranquillity.

In 1992 the Southern states’ massive vote gave way to the staging of another Super Tuesday on March 10. The challenge proved decisive both in the Republican field, where president Bush successfully repelled the attack by paleoconservative candidate Pat Buchanan, who nonetheless gained a quarter of the consensus and for Bill Clinton, the contest’s future winner who took the reins of the Democratic chariot.

Bill Clinton nel suo ufficio (LaPresse)
Bill Clinton in his office (La Presse)

In 2000 the Democrats outdid themselves when on March 7 they called to the polls California, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and Washington simultaneously, making that year’s Super Tuesday decisive for the success of Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore. It was also decisive on the Republican side for future President George W. Bush.

 

The year 2004 went by with no real “Super Tuesday” as such for the Democrats, while 2008 boasted what came to be known as a  “Giga Tuesday“: 52% of Democratic delegates were disputed in 23 electoral challenges and 41% of Republican delegates in 21 contests in just one single day, February 5, 2008. For the first time, the Super Tuesday primaries were strategic in a phase when in both parties running for the presidency the nomination race was fully open and the first rounds hadn’t produced a clear winner.

On a tragic Mardì Gras during which the southern States were hit a by a violent tornado, Illinois senator Barack Obama rose as the star of the Democrats by beating Hillary Clinton in 13 States, from Alaska to Utah. Despite the former First Lady’s victory in 10 contests, including California and New York, Obama managed to secure a tight margin in terms of delegates (847 to 834) providing him with a decisive political and psychological drive which enabled him to perfect his election campaign. On the Republican side, Arizona senator John McCain conquered nine states and 602 delegates in an arm wrestle with Mitt Romney, winner of seven contests and 201 delegates.

While Super Tuesdays can unite a party behind a strong candidate, they can also delineate divisions and polarization. In 2016 both Republicans and Democrats arrived at Super Tuesday torn apart. It was then that two figures rose to the top: one was Donald J. Trump, who in just a few months had turned from eccentric billionaire on loan to politics to the candidate opposing the establishment logic of the Grand Old Party, the other was Bernie Sanders. Trump overcame every obstacle on that Super Tuesday of March 1, while Sanders won four contests out of 11 against Obama’s former rival Hillary Clinton bringing to the forefront the Democratic party’s strong left-wing anti-establishment side.

Clinton’s victory in the primaries was marked by controversies and divisions and little attention was paid to the pro-Sanders supporters. In addition, the scandal regarding the Democratic National Committee helped cost the former First Lady the presidency. On Super Tuesday Trump began his triumphant march to the heart of the Republican Party which today, four years on, undoubtedly supports him even more strongly, despite the presence of distinguished currents (the late McCain and today Mitt Romney). While in 2020 the Democrats will have to find the way to bring together centrism and radicalism after Super Tuesday to avoid, come November, presenting a weak and divided party, unable to take on Trump’s electoral war machine.

Super Tuesday will deal the cards and will establish the balance of power. However, the winning candidate for the Democrats will only have done half the job and in the months to come will have to sweat it out to try and reach the presidency, fully aware that the mediation between different wings of the party will be the most difficult accomplishment.

Translation by Audrey Sadleir