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.
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
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.