Super Tuesday ain't what it used to be

Story highlights

  • Super Tuesday isn't what it was intended to be but still can have huge impact on the presidential primary races, says Julian Zelizer
  • Challengers to front-runners Trump and Clinton have a lot at stake, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)March 1 will be a big day for both parties. On Super Tuesday, 12 states and one U.S. territory will hold their primaries and caucuses. At stake are 595 delegates for the Republicans and 865 for the Democrats.

    For each party the outcome will be significant. If Donald Trump can continue to dominate the competition and accumulate a significant number of delegates, the math will become increasingly difficult for the other GOP candidates and the momentum from the victories will put him in great position to thrive in the remaining states. Cruz, Rubio and Kasich desperately need victories to prove they are still competitive.
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    Hillary Clinton could compound the delegate challenge that Bernie Sanders faces, taking the wind out of a campaign that surged in New Hampshire. If Sanders can win enough states to show that his campaign has real legs, he would re-energize supporters to the subsequent states.

    Why we have it

    Yet Super Tuesday no longer serves its original purpose. Created in its current form in 1984 as a counterweight to the ability of insurgents to succeed in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Southern Democrats had envisioned a day with numerous contests in their region to assert their collective power in deciding who should be the party nominee.
    This would allow them to push the party back toward the center and the establishment, serving a similar function as the South Carolina primary for Republicans. Based on a report by the Hunt Commission, several Southern states agreed to front-load the Democratic primaries in order to have a bigger impact.
    Although Super Tuesday initially didn't work the way Southerners hoped in the 1980s, with Sen. Walter Mondale from Minnesota winning the nomination in 1984 and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, the effects did become more significant in 1992 when Arkansan Bill Clinton won the nomination.
    The Republican Party leaders also turned Super Tuesday into a major event that would ensure their preferred candidate was the front-runner. The idea was that after the party favorite gained a footing in South Carolina, only a candidate with huge financial resources, major party endorsements, and access to the substantial media coverage would be able to pull off victories. This was supposed to be the day that insurgents in either party could not survive and where the center would hold.

    Topsy-turvy

    In this topsy-turvy year, it is not certain that Super Tuesday will serve its original function. For Republicans, the odds are that the contests will end up boosting the standing of Donald Trump with a string of victories that make it almost impossible for the other candidates to bounce back. Chris Christie's endorsement will likely counteract any negative fallout from the debate, and make Trump more appealing to undecided voters in some of the states voting.
    For Hillary Clinton the odds are also good. Bernie Sanders will find it difficult to translate his narrower electoral appeal to the kind of coalitions, with more conservative voters, needed to win in states like Texas. That said, some news reports are suggesting the outcome is far from certain. Politico reports that Sanders is in striking distance of victory in Vermont, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota. Just a few victories, even if the delegate count continues to go Clinton's way, would ensure a long and tough primary season for the Democrats.
    The older functions of Super Tuesday — as a mechanism for the party to ensure the nomination of the candidate the party barons preferred -- have become weaker because of how the campaign process has changed.
    As the floodgate to private money opened, more candidates have been able to gain access to the funds they need to compete in bigger states. With candidates armed with their own super PAC money, the party favorite no longer has a monopoly on resources. At the same time, Howard Dean, Barack Obama and now Bernie Sanders have shown how technological developments have created methods of raising mass amounts of small donations quickly.

    Social media revolution

    The media -- in fact, society -- has undergone a dramatic revolution that is changing the campaign game. As Jill Lepore argues in The New Yorker, major transformations in communications have historically shaken up the party systems. "With our phones in our hands and our eyes on our phones, each of us is a reporter, each a photographer, unedited and ill judged, chatting, snapping, tweeting, and posting, yikking and yakking."
    The open-ended nature of the new media has given all the candidates opportunities to make a huge imprint in the national dialogue. Nobody has done this better than Trump, who has brilliantly exploited Twitter to gain constant attention.
    Sanders has also proven effective at gaining media interest by embracing the role of the political revolutionary. The free-wheeling media has exploded the possibility of a party front-runner having a monopoly on access and coverage. Before, during and after Super Tuesday numerous voices can gain a hearing.
    Super Tuesday also has less power because the entire election process has been nationalized. This is no longer the single day when everyone is watching. The entire campaign is a major event. The campaign industrial complex, as it has been called, is so vast and so enormous that this campaign has been going on for months, long before Iowa. As a result, it is harder for any one moment to be as decisive in creating "momentum."

    Volatile voters

    Voter volatility is another factor that makes sizing up Super Tuesday's impact in 2016 particularly difficult. The electorate is very angry; great frustration exists with the status quo. The anger is driven by two factors: anxiety that has been created by the new normal in an economy where the middle class always feels insecure and the division between rich and poor keeps growing and a problematic political system that gives enormous power to wealthy candidates and contributors while Washington seems totally gridlocked.
    Still, the large delegate bounty of Super Tuesday and the narratives surrounding the front-runners in each party will likely make March 1 a particularly important milestone.
    Even if this isn't your grandfather's Super Tuesday, the stakes remain large and the day will significantly push the nomination battles in a more decisive direction.
    (Note: This version has a corrected number for the Democratic delegates at stake on Super Tuesday.)