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08.05.11

The Death of Super Tuesday?

The venerable one-day delegate jackpot has been a mainstay of presidential primaries, but all that will change in 2012. McKay Coppins on what it means for Palin, Romney, and Perry.

Pundits have hyped it. Candidates have built entire campaigns around it. And it has long served as the climax of presidential primaries. But next year, “Super Tuesday”—that one-day cluster of contests that has long served as the zenith of presidential primaries—will shrink to near oblivion. And the result, experts say, will be a 2012 race unlike anything the country has seen in decades.

The calendar is still in flux, but assuming the current dates hold, next year’s Super Tuesday will include just nine primaries, down from 24 in 2008.

The reasons for the sudden downsizing are varied. Red states are jockeying for greater influence on the GOP race this year by moving up their primary dates. Meanwhile, blue states are pushing their contests back into the spring, happy to extend Republican infighting as long as possible (and support the unchallenged Democratic incumbent). And with the Great Recession wreaking havoc on local governments’ budgets, some states are simply canceling the primaries altogether—or consolidating them with statewide elections—in order to save money.

The shift could fundamentally redefine the way the parties nominate their candidates—and alter the course of next year’s presidential primary race.

“It doesn’t look like there will be a knockout punch,” says Josh Putnam, a political science professor at Davidson College who blogs at Frontloading HQ. “It’s not like it has been, where some candidate has kind of established some measure of dominance in the early states, and then that person does well coming out of Super Tuesday and essentially wraps up the nomination. We won’t see that this time around.”

It boils down to simple addition. In order to clinch the nomination, a candidate needs to secure more than half of the party’s delegates. In primaries past, a presidential hopeful who dominated Super Tuesday could come close enough to that 51 percent mark that he would be considered the presumptive nominee. (Think of John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008.) But this time around, the number of delegates available early on will significantly shrink, making it impossible for someone like Mitt Romney to take out his primary rivals in one fell swoop.

“If Super Tuesday is no longer the place where a frontrunner can run up massive numbers of delegates, it changes the calculus,” says Christopher C. Hull, who teaches politics at Georgetown University. The result? “You can expect a longer primary process and a larger likelihood that an insurgent candidate will win the nomination.”

That spells trouble for Romney, who currently is leading most national polls but stands to lose steam the longer the race is drawn out. At the same time, it could create an opportunity for late entries like Sarah Palin or Texas Gov. Rick Perry—especially since this cycle’s scaled-back Super Tuesday will include several Southern states, where Romney’s moderate record and Mormon faith don’t play well.

If Romney fails to earn “presumptive nominee” status in March by losing Super Tuesday states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, he’s probably not going to call it quits then and there. More likely, he will rely on his well-stocked campaign war chest to hold on until later blue-state primaries where he’s expected to perform better, like New York (April 24) and California (June 5). In other words, get ready for one long, drawn-out horse race.

You can expect a longer primary process and a larger likelihood that an insurgent candidate will win the nomination.

Generally, Hull says, voters benefit from a longer primary process. Instead of would-be nominees spending all their time pandering to a handful of early-voting states in hopes of gaining momentum for Super Tuesday, candidates will have to address a broader array of topics.

“Iowa tends to center on farm issues, and New Hampshire Republicans care most about taxes, so that’s what we hear a lot of from the candidates,” Hull says. “To the extent that the primary is extended and there are more states that play roles in the process, you’ll see more issues and a broader debate that would probably be a good and healthy thing.”

It might also give the press corps more time to vet the various candidates and uncover any still-closeted skeletons that have yet to emerge. But even if the longer process fails to produce a big scandal, Hull says, a stretched-out primary will give voters greater opportunity to see the candidates’ true colors. “You’ll learn about them as the process goes on. You’ll see them in triumph, you’ll see them in defeat”—and these glimpses can help voters decide which lever to pull, he posits.

So, is this the new normal for presidential primaries? After all, Super Tuesday hasn’t always offered the gargantuan delegate jackpot that it did in 2008; the term didn’t even emerge until 1984, and in that election it was applied to three separate Tuesdays. Four years later, the nickname was used to describe a single day in March when nine Southern states simultaneously held primaries in an attempt to get Al Gore nominated. (The effort backfired that year, giving momentum to the Rev. Jesse Jackson instead.) Since then, Super Tuesdays have generally gotten bigger, with more and more states opting to participate.

While 2012 will buck that trend, most political scientists don’t think it will be permanent. “I think we’ve got a host of factors that have kind of created the perfect storm,” says Putnam. “In 2016, I think we’ll see a lot of those blue states move back to Super Tuesday.”

But with a subject as arcane and fluid as primary calendar scheduling, even the political scientists admit, well, this isn’t a science. Says Putnam, “I can say a lot of things today and be proven wrong tomorrow.”