Since the 1960 election, when the country moved away from the convention system and primaries gained new influence as a means of choosing presidential nominees, the states have tried different ways of staying relevant in the process, to ensure that their voters still had a say. Eventually, a number of states came up with the idea of banding together to have primaries take place on the same day.
While Super Tuesday started in 1984, it really took off in 1988, when eight Southern states banded together to have an effective March 8 regional primary, relatively early in the electoral season. With both parties having a real nomination fight that year because of the lack of an incumbent, Super Tuesday was seen as a great success. Since then, states have tried to use this strategy to gain more attention for voters in their state, but this comes at the expense of a coherent nomination fight.
The status of Super Tuesday has been a critical marker. In 2004, the race was effectively over after Super Tuesday, rendering the rest of the country irrelevant. In 2008, states raced their primaries forward, creating a “Super Duper Tuesday” and radically changing the calendar. And now, as we see this year, the failure to come up with a coherent long-term strategy for choosing a nominee to replace the old one has become all too evident. Neither party has figured out how to satisfy voters’ desire to cast a meaningful ballot without damaging the eventual nominee in the long run.
If one candidate scores some early victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and then quickly gains overwhelming momentum, there will be complaints about the nomination being all but decided before most states have a chance to vote. And if the nomination fight drags on, there is serious fear about splitting the party and damaging the nominee for the November race — in 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton never fully healed the party rift from her nomination fight with Sanders.
The parties have not been able to figure out how to properly navigate either of these issues. The result is a constant stream of complaints, one that has been gleefully amplified by the Republicans in both 2016 and this year in hopes of discouraging potential Democratic voters in November.
For this election season, there’s not much that can be done. But Democrats — and Republicans, who are facing an open race themselves in the next election — could start planning ahead for 2024. Beyond the obvious idea of eliminating caucuses, restoring the original idea of Super Tuesday — a regional primary rather than a large grouping of states across the country — may be the best fix.
The plan to have a rotating series of regional primaries has been consistently discussed, but always dropped. Still, while not a magic bullet, regional primaries have significant advantages compared to the dismally uncoordinated system that currently exists. A rotating system would prevent one or two kickoff states from playing such a large role in the process (as occurs with Iowa and New Hampshire, states that are no longer representative of much of the electorate) while at the same time still allowing smaller states to “count” in a campaign effort. And a regional system would mitigate the imbalances resulting from an overlarge Super Tuesday, in which California and Texas, the two biggest states participating, may overwhelm the smaller states that are also attempting to have their say on that day.
Regional primaries would also give candidates a chance to do more retail politicking, while being able to give coherent answers on region-specific issues. They would certainly help save candidates the time and expense of cross-country travel. A smaller campaigning radius for the early primaries would allow candidates to build momentum and could even compress the primary calendar so that party infighting has less time to develop.
This Super Tuesday is set to be a critical moment for Democrats, but voters have good reason to be concerned that both the party and the states have botched the planning of a singularly important day in the nomination fight. Both Democrats and Republicans should start planning ahead — they will need a more effective nomination system for the future.