What is Super Tuesday and how does it work?

One of the most important days on the political calendar as the race to the White House heats up, Newstalk’s Adrian Collins explains exactly what Super Tuesday is and how it works.

Hillary Clinton, Democrats, Super Tuesday

Image: Gerald Herbert / AP/Press Association Images

After months of media coverage, debates and speculation, the race to secure the nomination for the presidential election kicks into high gear on Super Tuesday.

With nine states holding their primaries on the same day and a number of further states holding their caucuses, the first Tuesday in March has become known as Super Tuesday.

Given the sheer number of ballots going on, this day can give us the first concrete indication of which candidates are most likely to be contesting the presidential election later this year.

What states vote?

To date, the events have been held in isolation - Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada have already declared their winners, by caucus or primary, assigning delegates to each candidate for both parties.

Super Tuesday sees a number of states hold their events on the same day. That means that a huge number of delegates are up for grabs, more than any other day on the campaign trail to date.

The states that hold their events on Super Tuesday changes in most election cycles, and this year, primaries for both the Republicans and the Democrats will be held in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

With the exception of Vermont and Massachusetts, those states are sometimes referred to as the South Eastern Conference (SEC) primaries, after the college football conference.

Both parties will also hold caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, Republicans will be holding caucuses in Alaska and Wyoming, while the Democrats will also hold a caucus in American Samoa.

The states in green are where both parties will hold their primaries; those shown in gold are where both parties will hold caucuses, and those in red are where the Republicans will hold caucuses.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Composite

It’s important to note that there are differences between the competitions held in different states and how they will assign their delegates, all of which has an impact on the race.

What’s the difference between a primary and a caucus?

The voting in all the states is held by either caucus or primary, with the former being a more old-fashioned way of doing things which apparently dates all the way back to the original colonial settlers.

A caucus is organised by the party on a local level; community centres, gyms and sports halls around the various districts turn into political hubs for the night as registered members of the two parties declare who they want to be their candidate.

In some cases, this can even be done by a sort of straw poll, as those in attendance separate into different groups in the room and a head count is performed. There is generally more back and forth here, as people try to win over other voters to their candidate, and is a start to the voting process. There is not always a presidential preference poll, which is why Wyoming and Colorado won't award delegates on Tuesday.

A primary is a more straight-forward vote, but again there are a number of different types of primary to consider. For the most part, the primaries are open to all registered voters in the state, no matter which party they are registered to.

Image: Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gestures as he speaks to a rally in Oklahoma City. Sue Ogrocki / AP/Press Association Images

For the Democrats, the only primaries that aren’t open are the ones held in Massachusetts and Oklahoma, which are semi-closed, meaning that registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters (those not registered to either party) can vote.

The Republicans also hold semi-closed primaries in Georgia and Massachusetts, while the primary in Oklahoma is closed, meaning only registered Republicans can vote there.

To add a further layer of complication, North Dakota is also involved on the Republican side, as it holds a series legislative district caucuses from the start of January through to Super Tuesday. Again, delegates will not be allocated from this state on Tuesday.

The delegates are awarded in a number of different ways across the different states; winner-take-most, winner-take-all and proportionally.

Image: Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks at the National Religious Broadcasters convention. Mark Humphrey / AP/Press Association Images

That is significant in so far as the person who comes first in the polls doesn’t necessarily take all the delegates on offer, so a number of good or close finishes can mean that a candidate still gets momentum behind them.

Furthermore, thanks to proportional systems, some candidates could win more delegates than their popular vote suggests they should.

What is a delegate and why are they important?

The delegates are essentially the representatives sent from the state to the national conventions held by both parties in July of this year, where they will name their presidential nominee.

The candidate who wins the most delegates will win the nomination, but the number required differs for both parties.

2,472 delegates get sent to the Republican National Convention (RNC) meaning a candidate needs 1,237 to win the nomination, while 4,765 delegates head to the Democratic National Convention (DNC), so a candidate would need to reach the figure of 2,383 to win the nomination.

On the Democratic side, that number breaks down into 4,051 pledged delegates won through the primaries, and 714 superdelegates.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., raises his fist in the air during a campaign rally. Jacquelyn Martin / AP/Press Association Images

A superdelegate is a member of the Democratic party, be they influential figures, former Presidents or serving members of Congress. They are not bound to pledge to a particular candidate, but can endorse the person they favour and vote for them at the DNC. Hillary Clinton is by far and away leading the polls over Bernie Sanders on that front, with 455 backing her candidacy.

However, they can change their mind at any time if they sense the tide is turning on their candidate, so there is some dispute over whether or not they should be counted at this early stage.

What does it all mean?

It’s a big step towards the nomination and is a more broad look at where the candidates are in the race. Closed caucuses and primaries give a different picture, but with most of the states having open primaries, we can get a better impression of how a candidate may perform in a general election.

Voters get the chance to tell the parties who they would send to the White House, and candidates who seemed like a long shot or an underdog can suddenly get momentum behind them with some big wins.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally to promote early voting ahead of Super Tuesday at the University of Arkansas. Gareth Patterson / AP/Press Association Images

For the Republicans, Donald Trump looks set to have, as he might say, "a 'uge day" on Super Tuesday which could seem him build up a massive lead in the race for delegates, all but tying up the nomination for him. A win for Ted Cruz in his home state of Texas however, where it’s a winner-take-most contest for 155 delegates, could see his flagging campaign regain some momentum. Rubio will hope to stay in contention, picking up delegates with some strong second place finishes.

Similarly for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is expected to sweep through the southern states, given that she was a comfortable winner in South Carolina over Bernie Sanders. However, if he wants to remain in the race beyond this week, Sanders needs to get an unexpected win in one of those SEC states (he is expected to win Vermont and perform well in Massachusetts) where he has not been polling well. 

That kind of a shock looks unlikely, but as this increasingly strange race has taught us over and over again, never say never...