Today, the contest either reopens or begins closing. With 422 pledged delegates at stake, Super Tuesday’s ten contests are an opportunity for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Should he amass, as Nate Silver forecasts, a majority of the day’s available delegates and come out on top in Ohio, he would again be headed towards winning the Republican nomination. Should he underperform in these races, talk of a brokered convention would again abound.
Not surprisingly, Romney’s opponents are working to block his path and stretch the competition. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum hopes to win Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and become the conservative favorite. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich hopes to win his home state of Georgia and reignite his campaign. U.S. Representative Ron Paul hopes to rack up a number of delegates in Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Vermont, and Virginia, so that he may have some influence in shaping the party’s platform at the RNC Convention this summer.
Presidential aspirants look for openings. Searching the political environment for opportunities to advance their candidacy, should they discover none, they work to alter their circumstances and as William H. Riker explains, “set up the situation in such a way [so] that other people will want to join them—will feel forced by circumstances to join them—even without any persuasion at all.”
Super Tuesday originated as one such attempt by an incumbent president who knew that in the modern nomination process one had to consider, what Elaine C. Kamarck describes as “sequence as strategy.” President Jimmy Carter grasped that wins and momentum were linked. In his 1980 reelection, he wanted to prevent an enterprising candidate from doing what he had done in the previous cycle. According to Kamarck, he sought to manipulate the nomination calendar by: (1) starting the process later; (2) ensuring “numerous simultaneous contests…soon after the first two”; and (3) persuading southern states to be early states. Even though Alabama, Georgia, and Florida were the only states to move their contests to March 11, Carter “encouraged Mississippi, South Carolina, and Oklahoma…to move to the earliest dates possible.” Carter’s plan did not scare away nomination challengers, but his wins in Iowa, Maine, and these early southern states allowed him to establish and maintain the delegate lead he carried all the way to the convention. His advocacy also encouraged the southern states to create a regional primary. Eight years later, fourteen southern states coordinated to hold their primary elections on March 8, 1988. Super Tuesday was born.
Although Super Tuesday now most often refers to the earliest date in February or March with the largest number of states awarding delegates, southern states still tend to predominate and establishment candidates, particularly on the Republican side, still tend to win most of the contests (George H.W. Bush in 1988, 1992, Robert Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, 2004, and John McCain in 2008). These results are not an accident. Barbara Norrander elucidates the Republicans’ thinking in 1988:
While Super Tuesday was the child of the Democratic party in the South, Republicans were not necessarily displeased. They speculated that Super Tuesday would backfire on the Democratic party. Noting that white southerners had been voting for Republican presidential candidates in the general election, southern Republicans hoped that these voters would fall further into the Republican camp through participation in Republican primaries…[They] hoped for their best results in the eight southern states holding open primaries, in which anyone can vote in either party’s primary…If the Republicans succeeded in drawing off conservative white Democrats into their party’s primaries, the Democratic Super Tuesday electorate would be composed of blacks and liberal whites. These groups, the Republicans speculated, would only support the type of candidate who would not win the South.
If this dynamic worked to the advantage of the Republicans in general elections over the last few decades, one must wonder if it is still working now. There’s ample evidence showing that the Republican candidates who are likely to win the southern states today (Gingrich and Santorum), would most probably lose to President Obama in November. Thus, although Tennessee may be a Southern bellwether, it’s no surprise that Ohio is today’s battleground.
It’s also not an accident that Ohio votes today. This, too, is the legacy of aspirant maneuvering.
Bob Bennett, an Ohioan and former party chair, had successfully navigated a version of the rotating regional primary reform through the 2008 spring meeting of the Rules Committee of the Republican National Committee. Once at the 2008 Republican National Convention, however, Republican presidential nominee John McCain reneged on his agreement to remain neutral and the proposal failed to secure final passage. As Kamarck details, “after some acrimonious negotiations between Bennett and the [McCain] campaign, the Republican reformers got a 15-member commission that would report to the RNC in 2010 and permission for the RNC to write the 2012 rules.” Not only was this power to tinker with the rules between the conventions an historic change for the Republican party, but it was also because of this failed proposal that Ohio’s primary is scheduled on this Super Tuesday.
Given the history of Super Tuesday, it’s fitting that this has shaped up to be Romney’s make or break day. Super Tuesday was designed to derail upstarts and promote establishment candidates; after Santorum’s surprisingly late surge, Romney can use all the establishment help he can get.
Lara M. Brown, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010).