Explainer: Super Tuesday

Voters elect delegates who pledge support to a particular candidate. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Super Tuesday is billed as the most important day for any US presidential nomination contest, and this year it’s more fascinating than ever. Fewer states are voting than usual and the Republican party is divided over which brand of conservatism it wants to take to the presidential election later this year.

As Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul face off across ten states, we asked US political expert Dr John Hart to explain how Super Tuesday works, and what today’s result might mean in the long run.


What is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday is the name given to the earliest date on the primary calendar when most US states have an opportunity to schedule their primary or caucus [where voters elect delegates who pledge support to candidates].

It’s called “Super” Tuesday because in the past large numbers of states have tried to have their primary and caucuses as early as possible so they can have some influence over the outcome.

The thing about this year though, is that there are fewer states involved. There are only 10 compared to 24 in 2008. It’s a not-so-super Tuesday this year.

This is due to changes in the Republican party rules about how states should conduct their primary, and also because of the budgetary situation in a lot of states where they can no longer afford to run a separate state primary for the presidential election and another primary later on in the year for all the other state offices.

States such as California, which went on Super Tuesday in 2008, have now pushed their primary back to the first week of June so they can combine their presidential primary with the primary for state political offices and hence save a hell of a lot of money. This is of course because California is broke at the moment.

Ohio will be crucial for Romney. EPA/Michael Reynolds

How do primaries work?

A primary is an election in which anybody who is on the electoral roll and has signified that they wish to vote in either the Democratic Party primary or the Republican Party primary can vote.

They vote for delegates to the national party convention, who have pledged to support one candidate or another. So in the Republican party if you were voting in Massachusetts and you wanted to see Mitt Romney as the party’s nominee, you would go into the primary and vote for a delegate who had pledged to support him.

Is Super Tuesday as important this year as it has been in the past?

EPA/David Maxwell

Super Tuesday has been important in the past because so many states have held their primaries then. Somewhere near half the total number of delegates to the convention have usually been chosen by that point. So in effect the front-loading of the primary schedule, which sees so many states going as early as possible has really closed off the nomination contest. In previous years you’ve more or less known who the candidate for the parties are going to be by Super Tuesday.

This year, no matter how well Mitt Romney does in the big primaries, he’s not going to end up with an overwhelming lead in delegate support whereby the media could turn round and say he’s got the nomination wrapped up.

Is there a possibility for a brokered convention this year?

I think it’s very unlikely that any other Republican but Mitt Romney will be in the lead in terms of delegate votes at the convention. But it’s very possible that Romney might not have an absolute majority of delegate votes, which is going to be 1,144 on the first ballot.

The rules in the party are that if there’s no candidate with the majority of votes in the first ballot, you hold another one, and another one, and another one until such time as there is a majority. But the delegates are freed from their pledges to support a particular candidate after the first ballot.

So Romney could go to the convention ahead in terms of delegate votes but with Santorum, Paul and Gingrich actually having between them a majority of delegate votes, and not being willing to release their delegates to Romney. That would lead to a brokered convention with more than one ballot. It’s impossible to predict what would happen after that. There hasn’t been a party convention that has gone to more than one ballot in nearly 60 years.

Which states will be most important this year?

EPA/Roy Dabner

The key one state is Ohio, for two reasons. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are running neck-and-neck in that state, and it’s a state with a sizeable number of delegates. 66 delegates are up for stake in Ohio today.

Romney initially had a lead, then Santorum built up some momentum in the state over the past three weeks and had a lead. But that lead seems to have been whittling away in the last few days.

But because of the particular way in which the vote of the public in the primary relates to the vote for delegates on a district basis in Ohio, Romney could win some districts, Santorum could win others.

It’s very likely that it’s going to be a fairly even spilt in Ohio. Although one candidate might win in the popular vote, it’s not going to make much difference in the delegate vote, and that’s what really counts.

The other state to watch is Georgia, where Newt Gingrich is ahead. It’s his own home state where he’s likely to win and I think that will revive his flagging candidacy and deprive Romney of a win in yet another southern state, which is important to the Republican Party. If Gingrich doesn’t win in Georgia he’s more or less finished. Super Tuesday should see him out of the race.

Virginia is an interesting one because only two candidates are on the ballot. It’s only Romney and Ron Paul. A lot of Republicans have been wanting to see a straight contest between two conservatives, because in a sense what this nomination race has been about is “anybody but Mitt Romney”. In Virginia this will actually happen today – a straight race between Romney and one other conservative, Ron Paul.

Both Gingrich and Santorum failed to raise enough signatures to get their name on the ballot in Virginia, which is a sad comment on their organisational capacity.

EPA/Erik S. Lesser

What is at the heart of the contest this year?

The nomination contest this year has been a fight for the soul of Republican Party between various different forms of conservatism. That schism in the party is not likely to be resolved by today’s contest.

If Romney cleaned up in every single contest with more than 50% of the vote in each state, you might say, “Okay, it’s beginning to look like it’s all over.” But so far Mitt Romney hasn’t won a single contest with more than 50% of the vote.

The key thing to remember is that there’s the politics of it all, which you read about in the paper every day, but also this is contest where the rules of the game affect the outcome.

The rules of the game in a presidential nomination contest are very media unfriendly, which is why a lot of commentators try to ignore or oversimplify them. But the rules play a big role here and can explain a lot. You’ve got to be a real political junkie to get involved in that kind of technical detail about how the system operates, but it’s a fact that the way the system operates will partly explain the outcomes of today’s primaries.

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