What You Need To Know About Super Tuesday

Thirteen states vote Tuesday in presidential primaries or caucuses -- the most in 2016.

02/29/2016 08:28 pm ET | Updated Mar 01, 2016

You may have heard about the importance of Super Tuesday for deciding who the next president is, but you are still not sure what it is exactly.

Here is an explanation of Super Tuesday and why you should care.

What is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday is a Tuesday in the presidential primary election season in which the largest number of states hold their primaries or caucuses.

This year’s Super Tuesday takes place on Tuesday, March 1.

The Super Tuesday election day typically features at least a dozen contests, which makes it likely that a candidate who performs well on Super Tuesday will go on to secure the nomination.

The Super Tuesday moniker dates to the 1980 election, when Alabama, Florida and Georgia held primaries on the same day.

According to a report by National Public Radio, the current, high-stakes Super Tuesday contest came about in 1988, when a dozen Southern states decided to hold Democratic primaries on the same day with the goal of nominating a more moderate Democratic presidential candidate. The effort failed, when then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson split the Southern states, setting the stage for then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), a Northern liberal, to become the party’s nominee.

What are this year’s Super Tuesday states?

Thirteen U.S. states and one American territory will hold primaries or caucuses on Tuesday.

In the vast majority of the Super Tuesday states, both Republican and Democratic elections will be taking place. Those elections are:

  1. Alabama
  2. Arkansas
  3. Colorado caucus
  4. Georgia
  5. Massachusetts
  6. Minnesota caucus
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Tennessee
  9. Texas
  10. Vermont
  11. Virginia

The contests taking place exclusively on the Democratic side are the American Samoa caucus and the primary for Democrats living abroad. In Alaska and Wyoming, which are hosting caucuses, only Republicans will vote.

What is the difference between a primary and a caucus?

A primary election is a simple secret-ballot vote administered by a state or local government. A caucus, by contrast, is run by the state-level political party and involves some element of party activists convincing one another to join their preferred candidate.

There are typically complicated historical and political reasons that some states hold a caucus rather than a primary.

How does the delegate math work?

Both primaries and caucuses are used to determine how many party delegates will back a given candidate in the two parties’ national conventions this summer. Except for rare exceptions, the candidate with the most delegates then earns the nomination.

To make matters more complicated on the Republican side, some states award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, while others allot delegates in proportion to the share of the vote a candidate receives.

Democratic primary and caucus states all award delegates in proportion to the candidate's share of votes.

And the Democratic Party sets aside a certain number of seats at its convention for superdelegates, prominent party activists and officials who count as delegates, but do not need to listen to the voters in the primary or caucus state they represent. Hillary Clinton’s lead among superdelegates is one reason she emerged from the New Hampshire primary with a relatively even number of delegates, despite Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) landslide victory in the state.

JASON CONNOLLY/Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaking at a rally in Ft. Collins, Colorado on Feb. 28, a state with a caucus on Tuesday. He is under pressure to show he can win outside of New England.

What if you are not a registered party member?

If you are among the 39 percent of Americans who does not affiliate with either major political party, you may be tempted to ignore the primary stage of the presidential race entirely.

After all, the primary elections are when party activists select their nominee.

But many states have “open” primaries and caucuses, which means you can vote in them even if you are not registered with either party.

To find out whether your Super Tuesday state has an open primary or caucus, and where the nearest polling location is, consult the news site 2016 Election Central.

How could this year's Super Tuesday affect the presidential race?

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is projected to do better than Bernie Sanders in most of the Super Tuesday states, according to HuffPost Pollster. The Southern states in particular play to Clinton’s advantage among African-American voters.

That is not good news for the Sanders campaign in the wake of disappointing losses in the Nevada caucus and the South Carolina primary. HuffPost’s Jason Linkins and Howard Fineman argue that if Sanders does not rack up multiple wins on Super Tuesday, his path to the nomination will narrow considerably.

On the Republican side, the party’s business-friendly establishment is hell-bent on slowing Donald Trump’s momentum. Trump is leading in most Super Tuesday states. But given the delegate lead Trump has already amassed, the races may be more crucial for his top rivals. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are desperate to show they are a viable alternative to Trump.

Why should you vote?

Voters in both political parties are locked in contentious fights to shape their parties’ ideological character and policy priorities. If you have strong feelings about Sanders’ attempt to make the Democratic Party less accommodating to big business and beholden to donors, or Trump’s use of racial incitement, reality TV-style improvisation and economic populism to reshape the GOP, then now is your time to weigh in.

If that doesn’t convince you, here are some other good reasons.

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