Super Tuesday: Five things to know about biggest voting day of Democratic primary election

Graig Graziosi
Candidates prepare to take part in the Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina: AFP via Getty Images

Regardless of how Super Tuesday shakes out, the race for the Democratic party's presidential nomination will undoubtedly look very different by the time the dust settles. Should Senator Bernie Sanders have an especially strong night, he may prove the be the "unstoppable" force that some centrist Democrats fear. On the other hand, especially strong showings among other candidates could transform the primary from a game of catch-up to a neck and neck race until the Democratic National Convention.

With the nations two most populous states - California and Texas - holding their primaries on Super Tuesday along with twelve other states, there are 1,617 - 34 percent of all available delegates - on the line.

Super Tuesday is particularly fascinating not only due to how much is at stake, but because in many ways it is a make-or-break point for campaigns. Will former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg's strategy to blitz the airwaves with his ads and skip the early primaries pan out? Will vice president Joe Biden's "firewall" of African American supporters in South Carolina improve his performance in southern Super Tuesday states? Will Mr Sanders secure the nomination by dominating California and Texas? Who will drop out, and what will the results tell us about the general election?


Will Mr Bloomberg's strategy hold up?

Heading into Super Tuesday, Mr Bloomberg's strategy isn't looking great. The former New York City mayor essentially hinged his campaign on a strong showing, and despite bursting onto the scene with some impressive poll numbers earlier in the month, his lackluster debate debut in Nevada mixed with a bombardment of negative press coverage - including his troubling history with female employees, his implementation of Stop and Frisk and his assertion that a lack of redlining caused the financial crisis and his coziness with bankers and the interests of the ultra wealthy - have left him floundering for momentum.

Mr Bloomberg's strategy to claim the nomination relies on other Democrats - particularly Mr Biden - to drop out of the race, leaving himself as the preferred candidate of the party's establishment voters. However, Mr Biden has seen a resurgence in support in South Carolina. A decisive victory in South Carolina could put the wind back in the sails of Mr Biden's campaign, keeping the former vice president in the race for the foreseeable future and thwarting Mr Bloomberg's aspirations.


What does South Carolina mean for Mr Biden on Super Tuesday?

It is doubtful that Mr Biden's campaign anticipated their candidate's exceptionally weak performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, and despite coming in second in Nevada, he still only managed to pick up nine delegates. However, Mr Biden's campaign strategy has been firmly rooted in a strong showing in South Carolina, where he claims he has a "firewall" of support among the state's African American Democratic voters.

IF HE WINS STRONG: With his strategy validated, Mr Biden's campaign may be in a position to win big in other southern states whose Democratic electorate includes a large number of African American voters. Heading into Super Tuesday, Mr Biden is favored to win Alabama and be competitive with Mr Sanders in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. His win in South Carolina may renew the confidence of other southern voters and turn the tide in his favor. Should that happen, Mr Biden could gain enough delegates to tighten the race.

IF HE DOES OK: Despite not blowing out South Carolina, Mr Biden's success in the state should still be enough to keep his campaign alive and give supporters and donors some confidence that he is still a viable candidate. Whether or not the success translates to Super Tuesday victories remains to be seen. Heading into Super Tuesday, Mr Biden is favored to win Alabama and be competitive with Mr Sanders in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Without winning at least a few Super Tuesday states it will be extremely difficult for Mr Biden to stay afloat moving forward.

IF HE LOSES: Mr Biden's loss in South Carolina would be surprising and doesn't bode well for his campaign. During the South Carolina debate, Mr Biden was asked if he would suspend his campaign if he lost the state. He dodged the question, instead answering "I will win South Carolina." Heading into Super Tuesday, Mr Biden was favored to win Alabama and be competitive with Mr Sanders in Arkansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. However, if South Carolina is any indication of things to come on Super Tuesday, Mr Biden's campaign may have to face the harsh reality that the nomination is outside of his grasp.


Can Mr Sanders clinch the nomination based on Super Tuesday results?

The short answer is: no.

In order to secure the nomination, a candidate must win a minimum of 1,991 pledged delegates by the time of the Democratic National Convention in July 13. Even if Mr Sanders won every possible delegate on Super Tuesday - 1,617 - he would still be short of the 1,991 mark. However, a series of decisive victories on Super Tuesday - especially in Texas and California - could give Mr Sanders a virtually insurmountable delegate lead.

If no candidate reaches the 1,991 mark by the convention - which some Democratic officials believe will be the case due to the crowded field - then all delegates, including superdelegates, will vote a second time. During this vote, delegates are unpledged and can vote for whoever they wish. In order to secure the nomination at this stage, a candidate needs 2,375.5 delegates.

With reports suggesting many superdelegates are unwilling to commit support Mr Sanders if he doesn't meet the 1,991 mark, his best chance at securing the nomination is winning big on Super Tuesday and scooping up enough delegates by the convention to give him a strong plurality, which would likely reduce the likelihood of having the nomination snatched from him during a brokered convention.


Who is likely to drop out?

A poor showing in Iowa or New Hampshire doesn't bode well for a candidate, but those states - both demographically homogeneous - don't reflect the overall diversity of the US. Candidates can survive a rough go in Iowa and New Hampshire. Pair that with a Super Tuesday catastrophe, however, and a campaign's viability becomes significantly less likely.

Barring some surprising results, Representative Tulsi Gabbard and entrepreneur Tom Steyer are the most likely candidates to drop out following Super Tuesday. There is no polling suggesting either of them have a chance at winning any significant delegates on Super Tuesday, and there would be no viable path to the nomination for them.

Discounting Mr Steyer and Ms Gabbard, Ms Klobuchar has the fewest delegates - 7 - of all the competitive Democrats. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the senator was being pressured by other Democrats to drop out of the race, but Ms Klobuchar has given no indication that she is considering leaving.

Especially poor performances on Super Tuesday by Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg might have sent the candidates packing in previous cycles, but neither candidate has given any indication that they would consider dropping out. Mr Buttigieg is going into Super Tuesday with the second most delegates, though polling from FiveThirtyEight suggests he isn't likely to win any states. Ms Warren is lagging behind in delegates, having won only eight across three contests thus far. However, a Super PAC supporting Ms Warren's campaign has contributed $9 million toward buying ads in California, Texas and her home state of Massachusetts. Altogether the group has contributed $14 million to keep Ms Warren in the race.


What will the Super Tuesday results mean for the general election in November?

It's likely that the most substantial insight Super Tuesday provides into the general election is which candidate is most likely to secure the Democratic nomination. In addition to that more obvious point, Democrats may also have a better idea as to the state of the party's current ideological battle between its progressive wing and establishment wing. Blowouts by Sanders or Warren would suggest the broader Democratic electorate is ready to move left, while exceptional showings by Mr Biden, Mr Bloomberg or any other centrist candidate would ensure the battle over the party's direction will continue until the convention.

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A state-by-state guide to everything at stake on Super Tuesday