SACRAMENTO, Calif. – After Democrats saw Walter Mondale lose 49 states to President Ronald Reagan in 1984, party leaders came up with a plan: create a one-day “Super Tuesday” primary where Southern states could vote en masse to produce a more moderate — and “electable” — nominee, preferably from the region.
It didn't work as planned.
In the 1988 Democratic primary, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, two of the race's more liberal contenders, emerged as the day's big winners. Dukakis went on to become the nominee, losing to George H.W. Bush.
“It backfired,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College who wrote a book on the 1988 election. “They misjudged what the South was.”
This year's collection of Super Tuesday states includes California and Texas along with several swing states from all regions of the country, suggesting a test of national appeal. But will the most liberal candidate in the race, Sen. Bernie Sanders, prevail, or will strong, more moderate competitors emerge?
One thing is certain: On Super Tuesday, the campaign shifts from retail to wholesale. Gone are the intimate events and the focus on a single state at time, replaced by national news hits and television ad buys designed to communicate with huge slices of the electorate all at once. It's a day when it becomes extremely difficult to compete without cash. And it typically plays a major role in setting a candidate on the path to the nomination.
“If somebody can win a clear victory, sweep Super Tuesday, they're probably going to be the nominee,” said Bill Carrick, who ran the 1988 campaign of Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, one of the more moderate choices who performed poorly on Super Tuesday. “If they've lost Super Tuesday, it's very hard to recover.”
This year there are echoes of 1988, with a cluster of moderate candidates trying to blunt the rise of Sanders, who won New Hampshire and Nevada and finished in a virtual tie for first in Iowa. Joe Biden's decisive South Carolina primary victory will alter the dynamics, but Sanders will still enter Tuesday's contest as the best-positioned candidate.
More than a third of the total delegates will be at stake as the following states hold primaries: Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, California, Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, Utah and Colorado.
But this year's Super Tuesday comes with a $500 million twist. Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, has spent at least that much advertising in Super Tuesday states and beyond, often having the airwaves to himself. His two lackluster debate performances may have hurt his chances, but he is trying to rewrite the orthodoxy of the primary process by spending the most when the most delegates are at stake in hopes of stopping Sanders. He skipped the first four voting states entirely.
Sanders has run television ads in every Super Tuesday state except Utah. But Bloomberg is outspending him more than 10 to 1 on in California and Texas. Sanders has campaigned aggressively in California, calling it one of the “first 5" states, and is hoping for victory and a load of delegates with it. The only other candidate to spend more than token amounts in either state is Tom Steyer, who spent more than $25.8 million in his home state of California and about $3 million in Texas before dropping out of the race following a poor showing in South Carolina.
With Super Tuesday falling just three days after the South Carolina primary this year, campaigns that hope to remain competitive are trying to use their time as effectively as possible. Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee also offer larger delegate hauls, and several candidates have visited in hopes of earning free media coverage or have purchased television and digital buys.
Longtime observers of Super Tuesday, in particular, said this year's contest is as unpredictable as any before it.
“In some election years, it pretty much determines the outcome," said Barbara Norrander, a professor in the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona who has written a book on Super Tuesday. “Other times, Super Tuesday kind of narrows it down to the front two or the front three.”
Indeed, 1988's Super Tuesday proved a bad showing for Gephardt, who had won the early voting states of Iowa and South Dakota. He split the moderate vote with Tennessee Sen. Al Gore. Jackson won five states, in a major showing among black voters in the South, while Dukakis picked up delegate-rich Florida and Texas.
Four years later, a strong showing on Super Tuesday put Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on the path to becoming the nominee. In 2000, Gore won every state on Super Tuesday, his status as vice president helping him beat back New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley to win the nomination easily.
It was “the proof that Gore's operation and his campaign had resonance among a broad swath of the Democratic nominating electorate,” said Michael Feldman, a former Gore aide. “Iowa is a specific thing, New Hampshire is a specific thing, but Super Tuesday was the first real test of (the campaign) on a national scale among broad swaths of voters, where the message and the candidate, and the idea of the campaign, is what carries the day.”
The biggest Super Tuesday was in 2008. That year, states were jockeying for more influence by moving their primaries earlier and earlier, causing Super Tuesday to swell to more than 20 states and be held in early February. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came out of the day nearly even on delegates, but Obama had built a stronger campaign for the states that followed, Norrander said, and Obama eventually won the nomination.
In 2016, when a collection of Southern states again held primaries that day, Clinton's dominance with black voters helped her best Sanders by more than 150 delegates.
Although Super Tuesday has shifted and changed over the years, Carrick said, there's one enduring message from its early failure: “Manipulating the political calendar for some politically desirable outcome you're looking for — it just hasn't worked."
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