Why this year’s Super Tuesday was different

Media confusion, changeable voters, distrust in voting technology… yesterday’s ‘Tsunami Tuesday’ highlighted some big changes in US politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Topics USA

‘Super Tuesday’ refers to the Tuesday in February or March when a large number of US states hold presidential nominating contests (for a summary of the process, see ‘Presidential primaries: the basics’ in the box below). But this year’s presidential campaign has been unusual in many respects, and so has Super Tuesday itself. Here are 10 reasons why yesterday’s Super Tuesday event was different to any we have seen before.

1) The first national primary day

This year, on Super Tuesday, US political parties held arguably the first-ever primary elections that were national in scope. There were 43 contests in 24 states, more than ever before. For this reason, some have dubbed this year ‘Super Duper Tuesday’ or ‘Tsunami Tuesday’.

2) Party hierarchies are not totally in control

The first Super Tuesday was in 1984; before then, the process was generally more spread out, taking place state-by-state. Larger states – and in 1988, Southern states in particular – moved their primaries to earlier in the year, so as to give them a more substantial role in selecting presidential nominees, and to try to reduce the influence of smaller states that traditionally were the first ones to hold nominating elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The thought was that the larger states were more likely to produce a candidate that has national electability.

But this year’s Super Tuesday shows that this process has developed beyond the control of the party hierarchies. Super Tuesday wins have often boosted candidates to the nomination, and so states have sought to move up their primaries, like a type of arms race. As a result, this year’s Super Tuesday has ended up being more front-loaded than ever before (and compressing the time between the first one in Iowa and Super Tuesday to a matter of weeks). In fact, the Democratic Party stripped all convention delegates from Florida and Michigan for disobeying the party by leapfrogging and holding their primaries before Super Tuesday.

3) Closer contests this year

This year Super Tuesday has seen tighter races than before. This is especially the case on the Democratic Party side, where, going into it, Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by 261 delegates to 190 delegates. Over the two weeks up to Super Tuesday, Obama had narrowed the gap with Clinton from 20 to five percentage points (1).

4) A nation-wide primary has led to different tactics

Traditionally, the nominee campaigning process was meant to provide time for the candidates to visit each of the states and provide voters with an opportunity to hear first-hand what they’ve got to say and potentially ask questions. But for this year’s Super Tuesday, with so many primaries happening in quick succession, the candidates have made frantic trips across the country, and have had to rely more on the mass media and television advertisements.

The national scope of Super Tuesday has also put a premium on endorsements from prominent politicians and celebrities. For instance, when Ted Kennedy announced his support for Obama, he not only provided big publicity; he also travelled the country on Obama’s behalf, effectively becoming his surrogate in some states. Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama showed the crack-up of the Democratic establishment, which Hillary and Bill Clinton represent. (At the same time, the fact that Kennedy’s backing wasn’t enough for Obama to take Massachusetts on the night suggests that the elder statesman’s influence may be overstated.)

5) The polls have been unreliable

So far in the process, it is striking how far off the polls have been from the actual results. Hillary Clinton’s unpredicted New Hampshire victory was the most striking example of the gap between opinion polls and the actual election outcome, but this has been the case in nearly every vote (for instance, South Carolina was much more pro-Obama than thought, and the Florida Republican results were also unexpected).

This has led to criticisms of polling agencies. But the more likely reason for the discrepancy is that many more people are deciding who to vote for on the day itself. In today’s anti-ideological times, and following the collapse of the party structures, few voters have deep loyalties. And given the superficial, non-ideological attachments people have to candidates, soap-opera-like media events near to the day (such as Hillary’s tears before New Hampshire) can have greater effects than previously.

6) More people are interested in Super Tuesday now

Although unconfirmed at the time of writing, it is reported that the turnouts at the polling stations will be larger than in recent years. There is also some indication that Latinos are voting more than before, becoming more of an electoral factor. In particular, the Obama campaign is credited with bringing more youth and first-time voters into the process. A slick music video about Obama created by will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas (and joined by other celebrities) took off in a ‘viral’ fashion, being viewed more than a million times between its release on Friday and Super Tuesday (2).

Some outside the US believe Americans are uniquely apolitical, and are to blame for ‘dumb’, ‘cowboy’ presidents like George W Bush. The American primaries are not the height of political engagement, but Americans’ participation and interest in these primaries does show that they are not the zombies some non-Americans make them out to be.

7) There’s more media coverage, too

Along with public interest, the media coverage of Super Tuesday has been huge. According to the Los Angeles Times, this is in stark contrast to Super Tuesday 2004:

‘A voracious appetite for political news has prompted the broadcast television networks and their cable counterparts to gear up for extensive coverage of Super Tuesday, offering programming more typical of a presidential general election than a February primary day. “This dominates in ways that politics hasn’t dominated since November of 2000, which was all politics all the time”, said Phil Griffin, NBC News’ senior vice president in charge of MSNBC. “There’s always been great interest at times like this, but this is great interest on steroids. People are consumed by it, and they’re going to flip around until they get to the next interesting development.”’ (3)

At the same time, most of the media has so far been an unreliable guide to the primaries. They have tended to exaggerate the latest events, and lose perspective. For example, the media went ga-ga for Obama after Iowa, and then looked foolish after Clinton’s New Hampshire victory. But then Obama wins in South Carolina, and all the hype about Obama comes flowing back again, with no caution. Yet national polls in the run-up to Super Tuesday showed that Clinton still was in the lead (despite Obama’s emergence), and Obama had still to prove that he can win the support of important sections of the Democratic party, including the white working-class vote. Probably the only thing that can be guaranteed after Super Tuesday is that the media will be off the mark.

8) There’s a lack of trust in the voting technology

Unlike earlier Super Tuesdays, this year’s has been accompanied by fears about the reliability of the vote-counting process itself. Advocacy groups such as Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation have raised concerns about the five states that were to use paperless touch-screen machines, on the grounds that these could make recounts impossible in close races or cases of computer failure. The focus on the possibility of the machinery going wrong itself reflects a lack of trust, a fear of political engagement itself. In particular, ever since the disputed Florida results in the Bush-Gore election of 2000, the liberal left has promoted conspiracy theories about the voting process.

9) This year’s Super Tuesday will not resolve who will be the nominees

Until soon before Super Tuesday, most pundits argued that Super Tuesday would be decisive in selecting the parties’ candidates. But in fact the nominations will remain as unresolved afterwards as they were before. Many thought McCain would at least emerge as the clear Republican nominee, but even that didn’t happen. Ironically, it is now the states that held back from joining in Super Tuesday that will be more decisive.

Some pundits are spinning this outcome, citing the ongoing competition among candidates as ‘wonderful’ for democracy. But it really looks more like a mess, with no candidates able to gain secure support. Once again, the central party machines have lost control of the process. And, while some might find the horse-race quality of the campaign entertaining, for those of us looking for ideas, the prospect of months more of this seems more like an endless episode of ‘American Idol’: it is the continuation of the politics of personality.

10) An unresolved result means this might run on until the party conventions

It is not out of the question that the nominations – in particular the Democratic selection – will only be finalised at the national convention (the Democatic convention is in Denver in August; the Republican one is in Minneapolis in September). It would seem that, given that Clinton could not deliver a knock-out punch on Super Tuesday, Obama will at minimum be able to hang in, and might even gain in momentum.

And if the Democratic race goes to the convention, so-called ‘super-delegates’ will come into play. The super-delegates are not elected by the states, but instead represent the party nationally (for example, party officials). They were introduced in the Seventies as a way for the party hierarchy to take back some control from the states. This year they represent a significant 20 per cent of the Democratic Party’s total delegates. Furthermore, given that she is the establishment candidate, Hillary is believed to have a lock on these delegates, creating quite a hurdle for Obama to overcome.

Presidential primaries: the basics

The process by which the two main US political parties select their nominees for president is a complicated one, hard for even Americans, never mind non-Americans, to follow. Here are some key features of the process:

  • Formally, candidates of both major politial parties are selected by party delegates at the respective national conventions (to be held this summer).
  • Candidates seek to win delegates via nominating contests in each state. Delegates are then typically ‘pledged’ to vote for certain candidates at the convention (strictly speaking delegates are not required to vote for that candidate, but they usually do). The candidate with a simple majority of delegates is elected the nominee.
  • Delegates for particular candidates can be determined by means of primaries (secret elections at polling stations, like a general election) or caucuses (where support for candidates is demonstrated publicly at gatherings at a variety of locations).
  • In some primaries, only those registered as party affiliates may vote; but others are open to non-registered individuals. So, in some cases, it is possible for non-party affiliates to influence the selection of a party’s candidate. Also, it’s worth noting that party identification is not like membership elsewhere: in many states, people simply tick a box when obtaining a drivers’ license. Registered voters are generally not paid-up party activists (as in the Labour or Conservative parties in the UK).
  • The parties use different methods to award delegates (and here the process can get really arcane). Very generally, the Democrats award delegates proportionally to the state vote (for example, if a candidate wins 40 per cent of the total state vote, he or she will receive 40 per cent of the state’s delegates). In contrast, many Republican contests work on a ‘winner takes all’ basis, whereby the top vote-getting candidate will win all of that state’s delegates.
  • As mentioned, the delegates vote for a nominee at the party conventions. In most instances, there is a clear nominee going into the convention, but at times the candidate is selected during the convention itself (this last occurred at the Republican convention in 1976, when Gerald Ford was selected over Ronald Reagan).

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Sean Collins asked if Obama will change American politics? while John Browne characterised Obama as the candidate of white America. Mick Hume asked what Hope for real Change in America?. Helen Searls looked at the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s fluctuating fortunes. Or read more at spiked issues USA and White House 2008.

(1) See Gallup Daily: Tracking Election 2008

(2) The making of this video is more reminiscent of charity campaigns in the past (such as Bob Geldof and “Feed the World”) than anything done on behalf of a presidential candidate. See the video here.

(3) Super Tuesday gets presidential treatment, Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2008:

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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