Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

"What is Super Tuesday?" Why it's so super, explained

March 6, 2012 by Holly Munson


Image via frangrit/Flickr.

The news networks won’t let you forget that today is Super Tuesday. You probably know that Super Tuesday is kind of a big deal—but if you’re not sure why, here’s a quick overview.

What is Super Tuesday?

State primary elections are spread out throughout the first half of the year, but Super Tuesday, which falls on Mar. 6 this year, is when the most primary elections are held on a single day. Naturally, it’s also when the most delegates—those responsible for officially nominating a candidate at the parties’ national conventions—are at stake.

Why is it so super?

With so many votes/delegates at stake, Super Tuesday is seen by many as a sign of things to come for the candidates—in the primary election and even in the general election. But as we’ll discuss below, not all Super Tuesdays are created equal; For example, there are half as many states participating in this Super Tuesday as there were in 2008.

How long has Super Tuesday been around?

Super Tuesday is a relatively recent concoction. It certainly wasn’t enshrined in the Constitution, which doesn’t even mention political parties.


It all began in 1988, when Southern Democrats sought to boost the influence of their region by scheduling nine southern state primaries on the same day. One Tennessee Democrat described it vividly: “When your dog bites you four or five times, it’s time to get a new dog. We’ve been bitten and it’s time for the South to get a new dog.” That new dog was Super Tuesday.


Proponents of Super Tuesday also touted another reason for their strategy. Lumping so many states together, they argued, would help shift the campaign away from so-called “retail politics”—candidates appealing to voters on a local level—to a more broad approach that appeals to the entire country.


Of course, Super Tuesday had had its critics. One Democratic leader said it was “too much like a general election already.” Indeed, after Super Tuesday it may seem that the nomination is already set in stone, leading voters in later-voting states to feel that their votes don’t matter. And with so many contests at once,  campaigns are spread thin, so they often resort to “tarmac campaigning,” stopping in for little more than a quick wave from the plane.


For more details on the history of this day, check out Super Tuesday: Regional Politics & Presidential Primaries, a 1992 book by Barbara Norrander.


Which states are voting on Super Tuesday 2012? What are the stakes?

For the Democratic Party, there will be no primary elections. For the Republican Party primaries, 10 states are voting on Super Tuesday: Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia.


Here are the numbers at a glance:


353: total delegates won in primaries held prior to Super Tuesday


419: total delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday primaries


203: delegates won by Mitt Romney so far


92: delegates won by Rick Santorum so far


33: delegates won by Newt Gingrich so far


25: delegates won by Ron Paul so far


1,144: delegates needed for a candidate to win the GOP nomination

    Want to see how the GOP candidates are doing this Super Tuesday (and throughout the primaries)? Check out the Wall Street Journal‘s Delegate Tracker for live updates.

    How does this year compare to previous elections?

    This year’s numbers are in sharp contrast to Super Tuesday 2008, which was, well, a lot more super. With 24 states voting, it was more than double this year’s number.


    The reality is that Super Tuesday’s “super-ness” varies drastically from election to election. Because Super Tuesday and the whole primary election system are not in the Constitution, the details are left to the laws of each state and the bylaws of each party—so they change along with the whims of party leaders and other influencing forces.


    States are constantly jockeying for whatever position they think will strengthen their influence, and political parties try to manage the states’ attempts as best they can to maintain the interests of the party. Sometimes, these competing interests conflict. In 2008, for example, Florida and Michigan tried to move up their primary dates, and the Democratic Party penalized the states by granting them only half-votes at the convention.


    The presidential campaign is often compared to a horse race. Considering the free-for-all aspect of Super Tuesday and the ups and downs of primary scheduling, it’s an apt analogy.


    Holly Munson is the Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center.


    Sign up for our email newsletter