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D-Day for U.S. Politics: The Evolution of Super Tuesday

How this one day in the primary season turned out to be so important

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I live in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state. Campaign season started here more than a year ago. I’ve met most of the major candidates by attending campaign events at diners and college auditoriums. We have already cast our ballots.

Yet, for most Americans, primary season is just ramping up.

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All the major candidates tend to focus their campaign resources in the first four nominating states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

On March 5, however, 15 states will hold their presidential nominating contests on what has come to be known as “Super Tuesday.” A 16th state, Iowa, will also hold its caucuses for the Democratic Party nomination on Super Tuesday. Republicans cast their votes in Iowa in January.

The impact of Super Tuesday is hard to overstate. States voting that day include Texas and California, the two most populous in the nation. More than 30 percent of American voters will have the opportunity to cast their ballots on Super Tuesday.

Super Tuesday is often a decisive day in presidential campaigns — a make-or-break moment that can all but assure a candidate’s victory. Big wins on Super Tuesday sealed the nominations for George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996 and Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000.

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So, how did Super Tuesday come about? It is a relatively recent invention in American politics, as is the whole primary system.

How did it work before primaries?

The first Super Tuesday was held in the 1980s. The modern primary system— in which every state holds a primary or nominating caucus — is a byproduct of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The Founding Fathers did not envision presidential primaries. Entrenched political parties didn’t form until the early years of the republic. Before the Progressive Era, in the first two decades of the 1900s, political bosses chose their party’s presidential candidate in smoke-filled backroom deals. There was no will of the people in these decisions.

Progressive reformers wanted to make the process more democratic. In 1912, 13 states held the first presidential primaries. Wrestling power from political bosses, though, took time.

By 1916, 25 states held presidential primaries, but delegates often were not bound by the results. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, won a majority of primary votes in 1912 but failed to win the Republican Party’s nomination.

His opponent, William Howard Taft, clinched the Republican Party’s nomination by employing a strategy to “get the nomination through patronage officeholders who would be delegates to state nominating conventions,” according to historian James Chace. Backroom deals still reigned.

The number of states holding primaries or caucuses fluctuated in the post-war years. This all came to a head at the contentious 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That year, the Democratic Party held only 15 state primaries.

Delegates at the convention nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy despite Humphrey not running in a single primary election. Riots broke out between McCarthy’s countercultural, anti-war supporters and the Chicago police. The melee was broadcast on national television. It was not a good look for Democrats or democracy.

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Then what happened?

After the 1968 Democratic convention debacle — and the presidential election won by Republican Richard Nixon — the Democratic Party established the McGovern-Frasier Commission to examine the nominating process. The resulting report recommended sweeping reforms intending to take power out of the hands of party powerbrokers and make the process more democratic.

The Republican Party also instituted modest reforms to its nominating processes during this time. The net result was that more states started holding primaries beginning in 1972.

Now, it is standard procedure for citizens of every state to elect their party’s presidential candidate in either a caucus or primary. Today's conflicts are limited mainly to the calendar — most states want to hold their primaries early for maximum influence.

How did Tuesday become so Super?

The term “Super Tuesday” was first used in 1980 when three southern states — Alabama, Florida, and Georgia— held their primaries on the same day.

By 1988, 20 mainly southern states held their primaries on the same Tuesday. By binding together, these southern states sought to assert an outsized — and moderating — influence on the Democratic pick. They were upset by the party nominating liberal Walter Mondale in 1984.

Super Tuesday is no longer associated primarily with the South. In addition to a handful of southern states, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine, Colorado and Utah will vote on 2024’s Super Tuesday.

Our constitutional republican system has survived and thrived for the past two centuries. For it to succeed, it requires the participation of citizens. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.”

Share your experience: Do you think Super Tuesday is the best way to elect party nominees? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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