How did Super Tuesday become Super?

Super Tuesday was designed to boost moderate Democrats. Occasionally, it's worked out that way.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
A woman kisses her child while the audience cheers for Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont as he speaks Monday during a campaign rally in Minneapolis the day before Super Tuesday.

How did Tuesday get to be Super?

Long story short: About 30 years ago a bunch of Southern Democrats thought that bunching their regional primaries would produce more moderate party nominees. That’s only occasionally worked as planned.

Super Tuesday 2016 is the biggest single day of this presidential primary season. Primaries and caucuses held on March 1 will allocate about 25 percent of all Republican convention delegates, and 22 percent of all corresponding Democrats.

That’s a lot of delegates. A sweep could make Donald Trump unstoppable. A surge might swing momentum Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida's way. Hillary Clinton could sew up the nomination. Or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont could catch up. We’ll know Tuesday night after polls close.

Like much about the modern presidential nomination process, Super Tuesday took shape in the late 1970s. Many Southern Democrats had been appalled by the choice of liberal Sen. George McGovern as the party’s standard-bearer in 1972. After Georgian Democrat Jimmy Carter rode into the White House on the national reaction against Watergate, he began pushing a regional primary. That sowed the seeds.

The first Super Tuesday was in 1984. Or rather, the first Super Tuesdays, as there were three, spread from March to June. If the idea was to boost a Democratic moderate, it did not work. Ohio Sen. John Glenn, a moderate and favorite in the South, did poorly in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire and limped into the Super Tuesdays. Liberal northern Walter Mondale locked up the nomination in early June instead.

Clearly the South needed a more organized approach.

Enter the Southern Legislative Conference, a group that represented and coordinated southern state Democratic lawmakers. It worked to convince Democratic-dominated Southern state legislatures to pass laws moving their primaries to the same day, early in the voting cycle. That worked.

Their goals were to lessen the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire and increase the leverage of the South; increase turnout in Southern primaries and draw moderate voters back to a party already losing them to the GOP; and block liberals from winning presidential nominations.

That didn’t happen. A dozen Southern states voted on March 8, 1988. But Southern voters didn’t coalesce around a favorite candidate. Dick Gephardt, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis split the vote.

Mr. Dukakis, a liberal-leaning Massachusetts governor, emerged the victor.

“Super Tuesday neither settled the Democratic nomination nor gave meaningful momentum to the more moderate Democratic candidates,” wrote political scientists Charles Hadley of the University of New Orleans and Harold Stanley of the University of Rochester in a scholarly study in 1989.

In 1992, things went more according to plan. Arkansas moderate Bill Clinton recovered from a shaky campaign beginning to win big in a number of Southern states on Super Tuesday, held that year on March 10.

Following that, Super Tuesday became more of a day to close out contests. In 1996 Republican Bob Dole sealed his nomination with a strong Super Tuesday performance. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore did the same thing.

Democrat John Kerry (another northern liberal) locked up his nomination win on Super Tuesday in 2004.

Over time Super Tuesday has produced consequences unintended by its founders. For one thing, over the years states outside the South have moved their primaries or caucuses to the same calendar day. This year, for example, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Minnesota are among the states voting on March 1, as well as Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.

“With the addition of these nonsouthern states, candidates might not be forced to address southern issues,” noted University of Arizona political scientist Barbara Norrander in her 1992 book “Super Tuesday.”

Meanwhile, liberal African-American voters are increasingly important to the Democratic electorates in the Southern states of Super Tuesday. White moderates and conservatives have largely migrated to the GOP.

And the early crush of Super Tuesday has accelerated the winnowing process of the primary season. That’s meant that candidates can win before voters really get to know them. It’s become something of a de facto national primary.

This year, 14 states and territories are holding Super Tuesday delegate contests. But the Superest Tuesday of all? That was 2008, when 25 states and territories, from Alabama to West Virginia, went to the polls or caucus sites on the same day, February 5.

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