Delegate Math 101

Presidential hopefuls are on the hunt this Super Tuesday for the 3,156 elusive prey known as delegates. About 42 percent of Democratic delegates and 44 percent of Republican delegates are up for grabs today.

Tracking this particular game can be incredibly complicated and is more like a science than a sport. The stakes are high. The math is complicated and the results are unpredictable.

Here's a breakdown of what everyone's after.

The Democratic and Republican nominees need a simple majority of delegates to be the winner. For Democrats, that's 2,025 delegates and for the Republicans, it's 1,191 delegates.

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How to Grab Them

They may travel in packs, but rounding up these little guys can be tricky.

That's what makes big game like California more attractive than smaller ones like Alaska. This is despite the fact that big game can have higher risk. See Rudy Giuliani and Florida.

Ten states are winner take all. So even if Mitt Romney somehow got close to John McCain in Arizona, Romney would walk away the big loser with no delegates.

For the Democrats, dividing the quarry can be much more complicated. Delegates are divided up proportionally, in direct relation to the percentage of total votes the candidate receives, which means when you have two strong candidates, like Obama and Clinton this year, no clear winner could emerge tonight. Even if one wins, determining the winner can take a long time.

Even then, the rules for dividing delegates can produce odd results, such as when Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in Nevada, but Barack Obama got one more extra delegate then Clinton did.

Now, the Top 5 states to watch:

1. California. The nation's most populous state also sends the most delegates to both parties' conventions. California is a nation unto itself, with broad racial and ethnic diversity, and this is the one state that could provide the biggest boost of momentum moving forward.

On the Democratic side, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama has been surging in polls despite the wide lead New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has long held. The Golden State will test the depth of Clinton's support among Latino voters, and both candidates' appeal to independents, who can vote in the Democratic primary but not the Republican one. It could also give an indication of the value of the Kennedy name in backing Obama; California first lady Maria Shriver joined cousin Caroline and uncle Ted in supporting Obama, and plenty of Kennedys have been working the state hard.

Among the Republicans, this is one of the few states that awards delegates based on congressional districts. Knowing that he can't afford a wipeout in the biggest state to vote, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made California a late priority, and he hopes the Republican-only makeup of the primary electorate will give him a boost over Arizona Sen. John McCain. The latest polls show conflicting results, leaving the state up for grabs.

Democratic primary — open (independents can vote)

Polls open: 10 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 11 p.m. ET

370 delegates at stake, awarded proportionally

Republican primary — closed (independents cannot vote)

Polls open: 10 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 11 p.m. ET;

170 delegates at stake, awarded via congressional district and winner take all

2. Missouri. The classic bellwether state is wide open on both sides, with key elected leaders supporting all four major candidates. Big coastal states are voting Tuesday, but this is the big prize of the Midwest.

For the Democrats, the state is a test of Obama's red-state appeal. Sen. Claire McCaskill has been outspoken in voicing concerns that Clinton would hurt other Democratic candidates this fall, and Obama is hoping his appeal to independents and Republicans gives him an edge over Clinton despite some of her structural advantages, through labor unions and the help of former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.

On the Republican side, McCain is banking on a big turnout from independents, and for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to siphon votes from Romney among social conservatives. Romney boasts of the endorsements of Gov. Matt Blunt and former Sen. Jim Talent, who is working the state hard for Romney.

Democratic primary — open

Polls open: 7 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

72 delegates at stake, proportional

Republican primary — open

Polls open: 7 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

58 delegates at stake, winner take all

3. New Jersey. This was supposed to be wrapped up by Clinton and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who hail from neighboring New York. But Giuliani's exit from the race has scrambled the GOP's equations, and Obama is keeping it close.

For the Democrats, Clinton still looks likely to prevail, but Obama could do much better than anyone expected, minimizing Clinton's delegate edge. Obama has returned repeatedly to the Garden State, and he has the support of former Sen. Bill Bradley and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, forcing Clinton to defend her backyard.

The contest holds less suspense on the Republican side, where Giuliani's exit leaves the state firmly in McCain's column.

Democratic primary — open to Democrats and new Democrats who have never voted in a primary

Polls open: 6 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

107 delegates at stake, proportional

Republican primary — semiclosed (open to new party members and new registered voters who have not voted in a primary)

Polls open: 6 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

52 delegates at stake, winner take all

4. Tennessee. A key Southern state that provides particular demographic challenges, and is a toss-up on both sides.

For the Democrats, polls show Clinton with an edge in the state that neighbors her husband's native Arkansas, but both candidates have campaigned extensively in Tennessee. Black voters are expected to make up between 25 percent and 30 percent of the Democratic vote — a sizeable chunk, but nowhere near the margin that helped Obama sweep to victory in South Carolina, so he'll need to attract white voters to stay competitive.

For the Republicans, Fred Thompson's fade has left a muddled race, and the former Tennessee senator's name remains on the ballot; he could also get a sizeable vote from absentee voting, with more than 320,000 votes cast in advance. Tennessee is perhaps Huckabee's biggest chance for another significant victory, but if he falls short, he could power a McCain victory by taking conservative votes away from Romney.

Democratic primary — open

Polls open: 7 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

68 delegates at stake, proportional

Republican primary — open

Polls open: 7 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

52 delegates at stake, congressional district winner take all

5. Connecticut. A toss-up state that stands at the crossroads of several campaigns' strategies.

On the Democratic side, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd has stayed neutral after leaving the race, though Obama has picked up some of Dodd's big-name backers. Connecticut, like New Jersey, is Clinton's backyard, however, and she has long counted on sweeping the tri-state area Tuesday.

For the Republicans, this was a Giuliani stronghold that now appears poised to support McCain. Though Romney lives in adjoining Massachusetts, McCain has strong appeal in the Nutmeg State, and he is campaigning extensively with independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and has the support of Gov. Jodi Rell.

Democratic primary — closed

Polls open: 6 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

48 delegates at stake, proportional

Republican primary — closed

Polls open: 6 a.m. ET;

Polls close: 8 p.m. ET;

27 delegates at stake, winner take all

Other States to Watch

Georgia. The big prize of the South, and close to a must-win for Obama, who is leading in the polls and needs heavy turnout among black voters. Another big opportunity for Huckabee, if he hopes to stay in the mix beyond Tuesday.

Massachusetts. Traditional Clinton territory, but Obama has the backing of senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, as well as Gov. Deval Patrick, in the fifth-largest Super Tuesday prize on the Democratic side. Romney appears in control of his home state, but a scare there could weaken him moving forward.

Arizona: The large Latino population bodes well for Clinton, but Gov. Janet Napolitano's support of Obama could help him minimize Clinton's edge. McCain has his home state in the bag.

New York: The second-biggest state voting Tuesday. It's the center of the media universe, and while Clinton is in good shape to win the state she's represented in the Senate since 2001, the results will be examined to see how close Obama keeps it. Giuliani's exit appears to have handed the state to McCain, and with it comes 101 delegates in the biggest winner-take-all state voting Tuesday.