History

Super Tuesday: What Makes It So Super?

More states and more delegates are on the line today than at any other point in the primary calendar.

Super Tuesday has arrived, with more states and more delegates on the line today than at any other point in the primary season.

After more than a year since the first candidate declared for the race, voters in 13 states and one territory finally have a chance to cast their ballots or line up to caucus for the candidate of their choice.

Super Tuesday has the potential to be one of the most decisive days in the still early stages of the presidential election. While the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary can thin out the field, and the South Carolina primary can give a candidate momentum or shift race dynamics, Super Tuesday is when aspiring nominees can catapult to insurmountable leads.

Election 2016: The Problem with Polls

The reason Super Tuesday carries so much weight comes down to delegate math. To become their party's presidential nominee for the general election, a Republican presidential candidate has to win 1,237 delegates out of 2,340 total available, while a Democratic presidential candidate needs 2,383 delegates out of 4,132 total, and that includes the 712 superdelegates who are free to lend their support to whomever they choose.

Up until now, only around 2 percent of the pledged delegates on the Democratic side and 5 percent of Republican delegates have been allocated following the results in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. On Super Tuesday, 865 pledged delegates, or 21 percent of the total, are up for grabs on the Democratic side, and 595 delegates, or 25 percent, are available to the Republican candidates.

The biggest prizes Tuesday are the contests in Texas and Georgia, which have more delegates available than other states.

Surprising Factors That Could Affect Your Vote

Winning a state doesn't mean winning all of its delegates, because none of the states up for grabs are true winner-take-all primaries or caucuses for either party. All of the states allocate delegate proportionally based on ballot counts or they use a "winner-take-most" system. How the distribution breaks down by state by party is a little complicated, but FiveThirtyEight provides a guide for understanding how delegates are apportioned by state on the Republican and Democratic sides.

Super Tuesday has been a part of the primary calendar since 1984, although the earliest usage of the term traces back to the presidential primaries four years earlier. On March 13, 1984, nine states voted to determine who Democrats would send to challenge the incumbent, President Ronald Reagan.

Although Sen. Gary Hart won the majority of the races that day, former Vice President Walter Mondale won the narrative by focusing the media's attention on the outcome of Georgia. His campaign rebounded, and he eventually won the nomination on the convention floor, only to get trounced in the general election.

Strangest Presidential Candidates in History

The 1984 election was the last year a party went without a candidate until the convention. Four years later, Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican and eventual President George H.W. Bush would clinch the nominations for their parties thanks to the results of Super Tuesday contests.

With the exception of the 2008 presidential election campaign, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled until June, Super Tuesday has generally closed out the competition allowing both parties' presumptive nominees to focus their campaigns on the general election.

Voter Suppression: Old Strategy, Modern Tactics

Even if Super Tuesday doesn't produce a clear frontrunner for both parties, a possibility particularly given the number of candidates still vying for the nomination on the Republican side, the primary season is unlikely to extend to the national conventions in July. In two weeks, after March 15, when five states - Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio - hold their primaries, nearly 60 percent of the delegates on the Republican side and 50 percent of those on the Democratic side will be allocated, according to The Green Papers.

While no one can say for sure who will eventually become the next president of the United States, by the end of the month, everyone will know the two people who might get the job. And after Super Tuesday, the picture of who those two individuals might be will get a lot clearer.

When New Hampshire voters cast their ballots in today's primary election, the candidates won't be the only ones tested by the results that emerge out of the the Granite State. Political pollsters will also find out how reliable their predictions turn out to be. Polls are supposed to provide an unbiased, authoritative view of the state of an election, but the strength of the reputation of any polling firm is the accuracy of its data. Results of elections in recent years have tested those reputations. In 2012,

Gallup, one of the most trust political polling organizations, wrongly picked

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to emerge victorious over incumbent President Barack Obama, and Gallup wasn't alone. Last week, the

Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll

released a day before voting incorrectly predicted the outcome of the Republican presidential caucuses. Similar polling mishaps occurred abroad in national elections in the

United Kingdom

and

Israel

in 2015. Polls aren't simply a predictive measure of who will win an election. They can influence media coverage of competing campaigns, especially given that news organizations often focus on the horse race in day-to-day coverage. Candidates who perform well in polls tend to get more attention from voters as the media spotlight focuses on who's ahead. Polls even determined who could and couldn't participate in recent debates when the Republican field was too large to accommodate all of the candidates on the stage. Given how important survey data are to election dynamics, why is it that polls occasionally miss the mark on major elections, even when accounting for their margin of error? What are the underlying issues facing polling firms as an industry?

Why Betting Markets and Polls Don't Agree

Technology poses one of the biggest challenges to the reliability of the data traditional polling firms are capable of gathering. These public opinion analysts rely on phone calls in order to conduct a survey. When over-the-phone dialogue is increasingly displaced by texting, instant messages or other means of communication, the traditional pollster has a more difficult time connecting with audiences.

Federal regulations restricting auto-dialing cell phone lines

, meant to protect mobile users from intrusive solicitation calls, make the work of polling firms more difficult and expensive, as operators have to dial numbers manually and often cannot connect with the intended respondent.

Caller ID

after all makes it easier for potential voters who don't want to be bothered answering a number they're not familiar with to ignore polling firms. Potential survey participants still reachable via landline tend to be older than wireless-only households. Online polls offer one possible alternative. Although they provide the benefit of instant access and feedback and are less costly than traditional polling, Internet-based public opinion survey face their own challenges in terms of response bias and under-representation of certain demographic groups.

Your Politics Stink: People Can Skew Ideology

For public opinion analysts to know what the state of the race, someone has to pick up the phone when pollsters call. A lot of people need to answer, in fact, particularly for a national survey that might need around 1,000 survey.

In piece for the New York Times last summer

, Cliff Zukin, past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and a Rutgers University political science professor, cited "a decline in people willing to answer surveys" as one of the chief obstacles to increasing unreliability of public opinion data. Although response rates by themselves do not determine whether a poll will be accurate, they can create the potential for bias in the results by leading to under representation of certain demographic groups. Weighting can correct over representation by certain segments of the electorate, but cannot completely eliminate potential bias from a poll.

How Will We Vote in 2020?

It's no secret that the face of the American public is changing with each generation, but pollsters are still catching up with demographic trends. A poll can only predict the outcome of an election if it can appropriately survey the people who compose the electorate. Doing so has historically proven a challenge for pollsters, who have admitted as much. Following its mistaken 2012 prediction,

Gallup conducted a sweeping review of its polling practices

and promised an overhaul to its operations. Certain minority groups were underrepresented in its sample, a problem faced by other pollsters as well. Polling firms also struggle to reach young and new voters with its data collection efforts. Better-educated are more likely to respond to surveys than the less educated, and likely voters who are more engaged are also more likely to participate in polls.

Surprising Factors That Could Affect Your Vote

While the main focus of election coverage has understandably been the presidential contest, candidates running for office in local, state and congressional races will eventually win the attention of media organizations, voters and pollsters alike. Down-ballot races are more difficult to predict than national elections. Although this partly has to do with the fact that fewer voters have a greater influence on an election outcome, pollsters may also struggle to reach a representative sample of likely voters. Sample sizes are smaller in state and congressional races, particularly for primary elections, increasing the possibility of significant discrepancies between vote tallies and polling data.

According to FiveThirtyEight

, according to their database of House polls that show one candidate leading a contest by between 5 and 10 percentage points, 23 percent picked the wrong winner.

Voter Suppression: Old Strategy, Modern Tactics

In order to get an inside view of the state of the race and also to drive the narrative of horse-race coverage, candidates may choose to commission a polling firm to conduct a survey. Naturally, when the person paying for the poll has an interest in the outcome, results can be skewed. Since 2002, partisan polls have had an average bias of 4.25 points favoring the side that commissioned the survey,

FiveThirtyEight reported in 2014

. Although these polls are often taken with a grain of salt when reported in the media, candidates can make the mistake of relying too heavily on their results. In 2014, internal polling by former House majority leader Eric Cantor showed him with a comfortable 34-point lead over Dave Brat in a primary. Instead, Brat successfully ousted Cantor despite the disadvantage in terms of funding and establishment support, pulling off one of the biggest upsets in congressional electoral history.

Counting Votes Is a Tricky Business

Polls are at snapshot in time. When results are released, the data always indicate a time period over which the survey was conducted. Campaigns aren't static events, of course. News events within and outside of the race dynamics can mold and reshape perceptions of those running for office. Candidates can build momentum that ultimately sways the last on-the-fence voters to fall in with one camp or another come Election Day. Momentum is one of the reasons pollster

J. Ann Selzer cites in her examination

of the tighter-than-expected outcome on the Democratic side during the Iowa caucuses. In a dynamic race, numbers can shift even overnight.

Notorious Political Ads of the Past: Photos

Polls can only do so much to correct for the issues listed in this slideshow, and ultimately the voters can skew results at the last minute. A voter might be undecided until he or she reaches the voting booth. Voters change their minds in light something as consequential as major political or economic or seemingly as minor as a gut-feeling. Even details as simple as how weather affects turnout can influence results. Pollsters can do their best to forecast the outcome of a race, but voters are the ones making the final decision.

Video: Why Polling Accuracy Is Trending Downward