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Have you ever wondered what’s so super about Super Tuesday? How it came to be? What’s really at stake?

The Iowa Caucus has come and (sort of) gone, New Hampshire felt the Bern, and it looks like Nevada and potentially South Carolina will, too. But what happens after the first four states? Will Michael Bloomberg really be a serious contender for the Democratic nomination? Can Bernie Sanders pull away from the pack? How long will Tulsi Gabbard stay in the race? 

We can’t answer all of those questions (sorry), but we can answer these. 

OK, but what is “Super Tuesday”?

Super Tuesday is the day when more states hold their presidential primaries, and more delegates are at stake than on any other day in the presidential primary calendar. This year, 14 states and one territory will hold Democratic primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday.

Many states will also hold Republican primaries and caucuses, but President Trump is expected to easily defeat his lone competitor, Bill Weld, so we’re focusing only on the Democratic contests. 

When is Super Tuesday?

Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Which states will go to the polls then?

Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia. Democrats in American Samoa and Democrats Abroad (expatriates who consider themselves Democrats) will also hold caucuses on Super Tuesday. 

Why is it called “Super Tuesday” and what is its origin story?

The term “Super Tuesday” describes the volume of voting that takes place and the number of delegates that are awarded on that day. 

The “Super Tuesday” moniker was first coined in 1980, when three Southern states—Alabama, Florida, and Georgia—held their primaries on the same day. In 1984, nine states participated on Super Tuesday, but the term wasn’t commonly used until 1988, when 21 states and territories, including a dozen Southern states, held their primaries on the same day. 

(Not So) Fun Fact: Frustrated by the 1984 nomination of Walter Mondale, those 12 Southern states decided to hold their primaries on the same day in 1988 to give themselves more influence and (hopefully) nominate a more moderate Democrat. Their plan didn’t work. Al Gore and Jesse Jackson largely split the Southern states, allowing Michael Dukakis to win the nomination.

Beyond that particular goal, the emergence of Super Tuesday also occurred in part to try and blunt Iowa’s influence over primary season, as the small, primarily white state was not—and still isn’t—representative of the nation as a whole. “Super Tuesday” grew into what it is today because states wanted to force candidates to run a national campaign in a diverse set of states.

The Southern monopoly on Super Tuesday has faded in recent contests, and currently, only seven of the 14 states that hold their nominating contests on Super Tuesday are in the South. 

How super is this year’s Super Tuesday?

While 14 states and one territory hold their primaries on Super Tuesday this year, that is far fewer than the record 25 that held them on Super Tuesday in 2008. 

How many delegates are at stake this year?

A total of 1,357 delegates will be awarded on Super Tuesday, accounting for 34% of all pledged delegates in this year’s Democratic nomination contest. More than twice as many delegates will be awarded on Super Tuesday than on any other single day this primary season.

Which state awards the most delegates?

California. As the largest state in the nation, it also awards the most delegates. This year, the Golden State will award 415 delegates. Texas, which also votes on Super Tuesday, will award another 228. 

Which nominee is considered the favorite?

It varies by state, and most of the Super Tuesday states, such as Alabama, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, have suffered from a near-total lack of polling in recent months, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is clearly the frontrunner in the most crucial states. 

Recent polls of California and Texas voters show Sanders with leads in each state. The 78-year-old self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist is also in virtual ties for first in both North Carolina and Virginia, the next two largest states holding primaries on Super Tuesday.

But the Democratic primaries are not winner-take-all. Instead, delegates are awarded proportionally, and candidates need to win at least 15% of voters in each state, and in some cases each congressional district, to receive delegates. 

This means Sanders is unlikely to run away with the nomination, even if he wins the biggest Super Tuesday states. 

His leading competitors at the moment appear to be Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former mayor of New York City who ignored the first four states and will make his debut on ballots on Super Tuesday, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who is coming off a fourth-place performance in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who narrowly beat Sanders in Iowa and placed second in New Hampshire, has struggled to turn those wins into national momentum, and is in danger of missing the threshold in nearly every Super Tuesday state, according to statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren are also in danger of missing the 15% threshold in every state with the exception of their respective home states of Minnesota and Massachusetts, according to Silver.

How is this year’s Super Tuesday different from others?

In most previous primary seasons, strong performances on Super Tuesday have all but clinched the nomination for candidates of one or both parties.

George H.W. Bush won 16 of the 17 Super Tuesday contests in 1988, Bill Clinton won seven of 10 Super Tuesday states in 1992, and Bob Dole swept Super Tuesday in 1996. Al Gore and George W. Bush also had strong performances in 2000, while John Kerry won all but one Super Tuesday state in 2004. 

2008 and 2012 featured more competitive Super Tuesdays, which were less decisive in the overall nominating contest.

It’s unlikely that this year’s Super Tuesday will establish a nominee, given how fragmented the vote still is and how large the field of candidates remains, but if Sanders clears the 15% threshold in every state and wins California and Texas, he’ll establish a significant delegate lead that will be difficult for other candidates to overcome. 

That’s what happened in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won seven super Tuesday states to Sanders’ four and outpaced him in delegates 511-348. President Trump similarly carried seven super Tuesday states in the 2016 Republican primary, while Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida combined to win four other states.

This year’s Super Tuesday is also unique because of Bloomberg’s role in the primaries. Having skipped the first four states and focused primarily on Super Tuesday, Bloomberg’s candidacy faces a make-or-break moment on March 3. In just three short months, he has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the race—far more than any other candidate—and is now firmly in the mix, according to polls. 

Super Tuesday could prove whether Bloomberg is a real contender, or if he’s just having a momentary surge. 

So we won’t know who the nominee is after Super Tuesday?

Probably not. But what Super Tuesday could do is shrink the Democratic field, which still includes eight candidates. Then again, in 2016, there were only five Republicans left in the field on Super Tuesday and only one dropped, Ben Carson, dropped out immediately after. 

What comes after Super Tuesday?

Six more states will hold their Democratic primaries or caucuses on March 10, followed by several more in the following weeks.