For Democrats, March 3, 2020 is shaping up to be a make-or-break date for presidential nomination hopes.
With California and North Carolina joining the roster of states that participated in the 2016 lineup, only a comparatively small handful of candidates is likely to remain viable after Super Tuesday, when the the largest haul of delegates on the election calendar is allotted.
The magic number of delegates needed to lock down the Democratic nomination is unknown, since the individual state allocation of delegates hasn’t been determined by party officials. One thing is clear however: Super Tuesday will likely clear the field and establish the presumptive favorite to carry the party’s banner in the November election.
The reason for this is part history and part contemporary politics.
Here’s the historical analysis: The term Super Tuesday is a journalistic concoction that deliberately mixes metaphors from the worlds of competitive sports and politics to denote an Election Day that would provide a knock-out blow to all but one or two surviving presidential nomination hopefuls.
The term was probably first used during the 1976 presidential primary in an unbylined story published by the United Press International news syndicate to describe the final and decisive push in the California, New Jersey and Ohio primaries by GOP President Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter as they vied for their respective party’s nominations.
In 1980, three southern states — Alabama, Florida and Georgia — held primaries on the same day, giving rise to the sports comparison, since those states are traditionally tied together in the Southeastern Conference, the football-crazed college athletic group.
In 1984, nine states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Washington — participated in a Democratic Super Tuesday, sending Walter Mondale to the convention with enough votes for the party’s nomination.
By 1988, the political moniker was a fixture of the quadrennial political primary season. Alarmed by the growing influence of minority voters in the Democratic Party, white political leaders from 12 southern states banded together, along with nine other states for a whopping 21-state Super Tuesday, in hopes of maxing out their influence to pick a moderate or conservative Democrat as the party’s presidential nominee.
Instead, Super Tuesday gave Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis the delegates he needed to win the nomination. Like Mondale before him, he was roundly defeated in the general election.
As a result of the 1984 and 1988 Democratic debacles, white southern Democrats recognized their flagging authority over a changing party and fled to the GOP, rather than become a minority among the growing black electorate across the South. The transition was so complete that white southern Democrats in modern-day Dixie are rare enough to be an endangered species.
Given the prominence of black Democratic voters across the south and demographic diversity in the delegate-rich states of California and Texas, Super Tuesday is now a crucial test of Democratic candidates’ ability to appeal to a broad and diverse coalition of American voters. That’s a path that few Democrats have effectively navigated and why Super Tuesday historically narrows the path to the nomination.
Which brings us to the contemporary politics at play in next year’s Super Tuesday contests on March 3, in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.
By tradition, the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary kicks off the quadrennial primary season with February contests in two of the nation’s states with a nearly all-white population and electorate.
A more representative assessment of the candidates will take place later that month when primary voters go to the polls in Nevada and South Carolina. In particular, the Nevada contest is likely to turn on the strength of Latinx voters. In South Carolina, black voters will have an outsized influence, a trend that has existed in Democratic primaries since 1976.
Antjuan Seawright, president and chief executive of Blueprint Strategies and a South Carolina-based Democratic political analyst, relishes telling anyone who asks that “the road to the Democratic nomination goes through South Carolina.”
In a recent interview with Think Progress, Seawright amended his prediction slightly, including Super Tuesday in the equation.
“Super Tuesday could be a pass-or-fail test case in the primary for Democrats — depending on what happens in South Carollina,” he said.
Josh Putnam, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who specializes in campaigns and elections and the author of Frontloading HQ, a blog that tracks presidential primaries, agrees that by the time Super Tuesday rolls around, only the strongest Democrats will be able to advance.
“The question [at this point in the campaign] is how quickly will the field winnow and I think it’s going to be rather normal,” Putnam said in an interview. “I’m willing to bet heading out of Super Tuesday, we’ll have as many as three viable candidates, maybe only two.“
But who will make the cut? At this early stage, it’s a wild gamble to predict, said Eric Schickler, a political scientist at the University of California-Berkeley.
The uncertainty in the race is why California and Texas moved its primary to be among the decisive states in Super Tuesday, Schickler said in a recent phone interview, noting that traditional by the time California voted in the primary the nominee was known and many one-time hopefuls would have abandoned their campaigns.
“After Super Tuesday, it will be very hard for those candidates who haven’t finished in the top tier of the primaries to keep [media] attention and activists support, and they will have to drop out,” he said. “You really need to come in the top three or four in those early states to keep your voters from looking at other candidates and your money from being siphoned off to more promising campaigns.”
In fact, he predicted the Democratic debates this summer will offer some clues as who can run the course. “The primary is a series of opportunities for candidates to raise money, get volunteers and get attention,” Schickler said. “Some will drop out before Iowa and after that, a few more will drop out.”
After Super Tuesday, only the fittest will survive and advance.
“Up until now it has seemed pretty wide open and it’s unpredictable,” Schickler said, declining to handicap the race at this stage of the contest.
“I could trace out different scenarios for each of the candidates because there are multiple plausible outcomes. But I wouldn’t be too confident in any one of them.”