Super Tuesday has arrived. For the uninitiated, this isn’t about shopping, like Black Friday. It’s one of the most important days in the quadrennial carnival that produces the two main candidates for the US presidency.
Despite appearances, the various candidates are not quite competing to win states, but instead to win delegates from states. Each state is allocated a different number of delegates depending on its size. These delegates will then formally select the presidential nominee at each party’s national convention in July.
And that’s why Super Tuesday is so crucial. Take the Republican side. Donald Trump, who even when you pinch yourself remains the frontrunner to represent the party of Abraham Lincoln, has only accrued 81 delegates so far. He needs 1,237 to secure the nomination. Almost 600 delegates will be apportioned on a state-by-state basis tonight, in a confusing combination of “winner-takes-all” and proportionality that is something like “winner-takes-most”. If that’s clear.
Trump looks set to win more of those delegates than any other candidate. The Donald is expected to finish first in Alaska, Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. Florida Senator Marco Rubio also has designs on Oklahoma, while Arkansas and Minnesota could be close three-way fights with Ted Cruz. But perhaps the most interesting state will be Texas, where Ted Cruz is a senator. Texas has 155 delegates, whereas no other state with a contest tonight allocates more than 58. Cruz has a decent lead in most polls of the state, but if Trump can defeat Cruz in his home state, then Cruz would probably have to drop out of the race.
Rubio’s strategy, meanwhile, appears to be to perform solidly across most states, picking up as many delegates as he can even without winning, until he is the last non-Trump candidate left standing. That’s complicated by the fact that polling on a straight Trump v Rubio match-up suggests Trump would win comfortably, and that as well as Cruz, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Ohio governor John Kasich show no sign of wanting to quit the race.
Kasich, who was a fierce conservative at the start of his career but is now a relative moderate in a transformed party, apparently sees a route to the nomination through the Michigan primary on 8 March and the primary in his home state of Ohio on 15 March. This seems implausible, and he is beginning to attract the ire of the Republican establishment for failing to drop out and support Rubio.
Democrats are holding contests tonight in all the same states, save for replacing Alaska with Colorado. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s anti-establishment rival, will definitely win Vermont, his home state, where he is hugely popular. He will also hope to come out on top in other states that are like Vermont and New Hampshire, which is the only contest where he has bested Clinton thus far. That is, states with disproportionate numbers of white liberals among the Democrat electorate. Tonight, those states are Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota and possibly Oklahoma – though Clinton’s campaign has been increasingly positive about Massachusetts, which borders Vermont and New Hampshire, in recent days.
Clinton, for her part, is expected to come top in Alabama, Arkansas (where Bill Clinton was governor), Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The delegates are allocated proportionately, but the states where Clinton is strong tend to be larger. The question for Clinton is how much she beats Sanders by tonight. She will hope to knock him out of the race as soon as possible so she can turn her focus to the Republicans. Watch out for Sanders’ reaction after the results come in, which may give some indication as to how long he intends to keep the formal contest going. He could stay in as late as the California Primary, which allocates by far the most delegates, on 7 June.
As complicated as all that sounds, the current likelihood is a presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in November. Tonight is mostly about how quickly that contest is confirmed.