It’s the single biggest day of voting until November in terms of states in play (11 on each side, plus a territory for the Democrats) and delegates at stake (595 for the Republicans, and 1,015 Democratic delegates in the states voting Tuesday).
No candidate can wrap up the nomination on Super Tuesday. But the frontrunners are expected to put some serious distance between themselves and their closest competitors. And the regional focus of the day -– seven Southern states vote on Tuesday -– raises the stakes for several candidates.
Donald Trump is looking for a clean sweep, or something close to it, to tighten his grip on the nomination. Ted Cruz faces a do-or-die moment in his home state –- and, oddly, Marco Rubio may want him to survive if only to help block Trump. Rubio and John Kasich are looking for wins anywhere. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly pad her delegate lead, putting distance between herself and Bernie Sanders that may prove impossible to make up. Sanders is hoping for enough wins to be able to claim some momentum as the campaign moves to, for him, more favorable terrain.
Here are some storylines to watch on Super Tuesday:
For Donald Trump, the question has quickly shifted from “can he win” to “can he lose?” Trump is set to have yet another big night on Tuesday, armed now with the splashiest endorsement of the cycle. The best his rivals can hope for is that his night won’t be a huge one, and that it won’t be enough of a statement to give Trump a delegate lead that proves insurmountable. One key threshold to watch will be 46 percent -– the portion of the vote he got in Nevada, his current high-water mark. Several states (including Massachusetts and Georgia) offer big delegate bounties if a candidate tops 50 percent -– a high bar, but not an inconceivable number, suddenly. GOP insiders will be looking to identify a potential Trump ceiling –- assuming it exists -– as well as any soft spots on issue areas and personal attributes that his rivals can exploit. The closed primary in Oklahoma -– where only registered Republicans can vote -– will be a particular test for Trump, and a win in Texas, while not expected, would effectively kill off Ted Cruz’s campaign. But the frontrunner has momentum and math on his side early. Super Tuesday may be the last best shot to slow his march on either front.
If Marco Rubio wants to win, when he will he start, well, winning? His Trump-style insults notwithstanding, it’s possible that Rubio gets shut out again on Tuesday, after coming in second, fifth, second, and second through the first four contests. Rubio himself has said he doesn’t think he needs to win any primaries until March 15, when his home state of Florida goes to the polls. That’s a hard argument to make, particularly given the geographic diversity and sheer number of delegates at stake Super Tuesday. And that’s an impossible argument to make if he isn’t collecting delegates along the way. Rubio will need to over-perform in states with a better-educated and suburban GOP electorate -– Virginia, Minnesota, Arkansas, and Oklahoma –- and keep from getting shut out in the South. His goal is to exceed 20 percent of the vote in states where that guarantees a chunk of delegates; Ted Cruz’s home state of Texas is on that list, as are Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. The national establishment has been quick to embrace Rubio as the best Trump alternative after Jeb Bush’s exit from the race. But insults alone won’t take Rubio from hyped top prospect to a delegate-producing long-ball threat.
The calendar that was once Ted Cruz’s ally now stands as an enemy. Super Tuesday was supposed to be the day Ted Cruz established his dominance over the Republican race. Now, he’d be happy to eke out a win in his home state of Texas, while building a delegate edge over Rubio that he can only hope would force Rubio from the race. Cruz has liked saying he can beat Trump because he’s the only candidate to have beaten him. The so-called “SEC” states voting Tuesday have long held the promise of more Cruz wins. But Iowa has never felt more distant, and disappointing third-place finishes in Nevada and -– especially -– South Carolina have stung a campaign that’s struggling to lock down evangelicals and has been besieged by allegations of dirty tricks. Cruz had once hoped to win an outright majority in the Lone Star State, giving him the lion’s share of its 155 delegates. Now, the best he can hope for is a split where his name comes out on top. For Cruz to truly get back on track, he’ll need to carry Texas and win or at least avoid third place in states including Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alabama. And his campaign would love to keep Rubio’s vote share under 20 percent in a few critical places, to allow Cruz to open up a delegate lead for second place.
THE OTHER GUYS
Why are John Kasich and Ben Carson still running? That’s a slightly easier question regarding Kasich, who is banking on a Midwest strategy where he wins Michigan March 8 and his home state of Ohio a week later. But he looks likely to be limping into that critical stretch without a single win under his belt, with a terrible map confronting him Super Tuesday. That’s why he’s running ads in Vermont, though even that won’t be enough to vault him into serious contention. Kasich will also need strong showings in states like Massachusetts and Minnesota to emerge as the anti-Trump candidate, and only then if Cruz and Rubio effectively kill each other off. As for Carson, he’s going nowhere, and slowly, with his candidacy looking like a marketing scheme-gone-haywire that has the side effect of siphoning away potential Cruz voters. Carson has no viable path to the nomination, short of a series of crazy upsets that no pollster or strategist in the nation sees coming.
Luckily for Bernie Sanders, Super Tuesday isn’t just about SEC states -– it has some ACC and Big 12 sprinkled in it. Unluckily for him, he’s almost guaranteed to fall further behind in the delegate race, with diminishing prospects for playing catch-up later. Sanders’ home state of Vermont and neighboring Massachusetts are targets for Sanders wins, even while Hillary Clinton is prepared to romp through the South. Realistically, though, Sanders can’t afford to only win the states he’s favored in demographically. He’d love to take Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday, with Oklahoma next on his like-to-have list. Sanders is already focusing on more favorable terrain in upcoming caucuses and beyond, when most southern states will be in the rear-view mirror. But gone, too, could be any realistic chance of Sanders catching up with Clinton’s ballooning delegate lead.
For Hillary Clinton, it’s time to pull away. After a blowout of a win in South Carolina, Super Tuesday is a chance for Clinton to start putting together a delegate lead that could easily prove insurmountable. The truth is she only needs a middling night to make that the case. She could lose as many as five states to Sanders and still claim an overwhelming victory, given delegate allocation rules –- all states award proportionally on the Democratic side -– and her potential to rack up blowout wins in the Deep South. Texas, Georgia, and Virginia stand as the biggest opportunities for Clinton to leverage her advantage among African-American voters, and to test Sanders’ early strength among Latinos. Her team is well-positioned to teach a lesson Clinton’s own 2008 campaign learned painfully well: This is a battle for delegates, not just states, and demographic and regional differences –- along with voting quirks in some states – are more important than momentum in a drawn-out race.