Super Tuesday marks end of the phase of the campaign when primary and caucus returns are mostly interpreted in terms of momentum and what they might mean for the shape of the race, and the start of the time when delegate counts finally become meaningful. On March 1st, 865 Democratic delegates and 595 Republican delegates will be won—this does not include super delegates-as voters go to the polls or caucuses in 13 states. Thus, just over 25 percent of the GOP delegates will be determined on Super Tuesday. On the Democratic side, just over 21 percent of regular delegates will be awarded on Tuesday. The percentage is lower if superdelegates are included in the overall count.
In broad strokes, not enough delegates will be chosen on Tuesday to guarantee anybody the nomination, unless they win by very large margins. However, after Super Tuesday, candidates who are significantly behind in delegate counts will have a very difficult time getting back in the race. Moreover, because all of the delegates for both parties on Super Tuesday will be awarded proportionally, candidates can win significant numbers of delegates without winning individual states.
On the Democratic side, Super Tuesday favors Hillary Clinton. Six of the states, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and Virginia are southern states where African Americans make up substantial proportions of the Democratic primary electorate. However, Massachusetts and Vermont, which are also part of Super Tuesday, should be much more friendly territory for Bernie Sanders. Thus, the challenge for Mr. Sanders is not to win Super Tuesday but to do well enough that he survives it while maintaining doubts about Ms. Clinton’s inevitability. Ms. Clinton, needs to win by a decisive enough margin that she can make that inevitability narrative seem plausible again.
If, Senator Sanders is able to win 45% or more of the delegates awarded on Super Tuesday, he will be in excellent shape as the campaign moves to states that should be easier for the progressive Vermonter. After Super Tuesday, there will be many large northern states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, where Mr. Sanders’ message has a good chance of resonating. In those states Ms. Clinton’s appeal to African American voters, which was a big part of her drubbing of Mr. Sanders in South Carolina on Tuesday, may not be quite as strong as in the south. Mr. Sanders will have to find a way to catch up with Ms. Clinton after March 1st, but if he is able to stay close on Super Tuesday, it will be a lot easier for him.
Ms. Clinton has the opposite task. She does not just need to win on Super Tuesday. She needs a big win. If she picks up 60 percent or more of the delegates awarded that day, Ms. Clinton will not only be perceived as inevitable, but will have a delegate advantage that will be difficult for Mr. Sanders to overcome. If her margin is between 55 and 60 percent, she should be okay, but if she gets below 55 percent, Mr. Sanders will be able to chip away at her lead during the rest of the primaries.
According to some delegate counts, Ms. Clinton already has an almost insurmountable lead in delegates. This is due largely to her 543-85 lead among superdelegates, among delegates earned from primaries and caucuses, her lead is a much more modest 90-65. Superdelegates are the 712 Democratic leaders, elected officials, and other activists who are not elected in any primary or caucus, but who can vote for whomever they want at the convention. They are the archetype of the Democratic establishment against which Senator Sanders had crafted much of his campaign.
While this lead among superdelegates may provide succor to Ms. Clinton’s most enthusiastic supporters. It should not be mistaken for a guarantee of anything. Superdelegates can switch their support whenever they like. More importantly, the absolute worst thing the Democrats could do for their November hopes is to nominate Ms. Clinton with a big margin from Superdelegates if she loses the regular delegate count to Mr. Sanders. The impact of that should be clear. At the center of Mr. Sanders’ appeal is the notion that everything, including economics and elections, is rigged. Nothing would support that assertion, and infuriate his supporters, more than seeing Ms. Clinton nominated through what they would see as an overtly unfair process. Neither Mr. Sanders nor Ms. Clinton are ideal Democratic candidates. However, whichever one wins the nomination can win a general election, but only if the perception is that they won the nomination fairly. If Mr. Sanders starts winning primaries, the super delegates will either figure that out, or lead their party to defeat in November.
On the Republican side, Super Tuesday may well be the last chance for Republicans to stop Donald Trump’s nomination. The best, and already perhaps only, hope for anti-Trump forces in the GOP now is to stop Mr. Trump from winning a majority of delegates and to bring about that most elusive of election year unicorns, the brokered convention. Supporters of this scenario imagine Paul Ryan then being nominated and saving the Republican Party. The major problem with this scenario, even if we get to a brokered convention, is that it is not likely that a convention dominated by a plurality of Trump delegates would nominate Mr. Ryan who, as Speaker of the House, is the ultimate Republican establishment figure.
Mr. Turmp, however, can prevent this scenario with a good showing on Super Tuesday. This means winning 55 percent or more of the delegates, and both Senators Cruz and Senator Rubio doing well enough that they remain in the race for even a few more weeks. Given how well Mr. Trump is doing in most polls going into Super Tuesday, winning 55 percent of the delegates, something that he should be able to do with roughly 40 percent of the overall vote, should not be too difficult. Thus far, he has won 65 percent of the delegates. If he maintains that pace on Tuesday, it will be very hard to stop him.
Mr. Trump’s two remaining opponents face much more difficult challenges. Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio both need to accomplish two things going into Super Tuesday—emerge as the last man standing against Mr. Trump, and stop Mr. Trump from opening an insurmountable lead. For Mr. Cruz this means limiting Mr. Trump to less than 55 percent of the delegates on Super Tuesday, winning more delegates than Mr. Rubio and winning his home state of Texas. Mr. Rubio has a similar set of thing she must do on Super Tuesday-limit Mr. Trump to less than 55 percent of the delegates and win more delegates then Mr. Cruz. Mr. Rubio also needs to win a few states on Tuesday. The GOP primary is now past the point where narrative, strong seconds, surprising third place finishes and the like matter. The notion that Mr. Rubio will magically stop Mr. Trump if this becomes a two person race is tenuous enough, but cannot be taken seriously until Mr. Rubio shows he can win somewhere. Thus far he has not done that.
This campaign already feels like it has lasted a long time. Depending on how things go Tuesday, the campaign could either continue on, or, if Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton enjoy big days, the primary campaign could suddenly feel like it is almost over.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.