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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.