If all you want from Super Tuesday is a headline, the best bet is that this will be what you get: “Trump and Clinton Win.” The front-runners for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations are front-runners in the majority of states that will vote today. The whole point of Super Tuesday, as it was established decades ago, and as it has continued to operate, is to advantage front-runners and to disadvantage challengers to the dominant narrative. Polls from the states that are voting and caucusing today favor Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
That matters, as the front-runners are likely to collect a lot of delegates on a day when 595 of the 1,236 that are needed to secure the Republican nomination, and when 865 of the 2,382 that are needed to secure the Democratic nomination, will be selected. But the headlines (and the conventional wisdom that keeps trying to curtail the competition on both sides) will not begin to tell the whole story of this Super Tuesday—or of the evolving Democratic and Republican races.
Here are some tips for reading the results from the 11 states (and American Samoa on the Democratic side) that will be caucusing and voting today:
1. Trump will win a lot of states and delegates. But what will Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio get? To go forward in a serious way, Cruz must win Texas by a credible margin and either win or run very well in states where he has focused energy during this campaign: especially Georgia and Alabama. Rubio must win somewhere; the senator has yet to finish better than a weak second anywhere, and he will have a very hard time going forward as the also-ran.
2. Ohio Governor John Kasich is going forward, no matter what—aiming for coming contests in Michigan and then his home state. He is surfing over, around, and under Super Tuesday, doing a lot of media interviews and trying to come out as the last man standing against Trump. But Kasich has to show strength somewhere; he needs to collect a reasonable number of delegates. Keep an eye on Massachusetts, where Kasich has campaigned and enjoys the endorsement of The Boston Globe. A second-place finish there might help him make the argument that he’s the best alternative to the billionaire.
3. Super Tuesday was always expected to be a big day for Clinton, but she is going for something more: a sweep. If Clinton wins all the Super Tuesday states except Sanders’s home state of Vermont, she will shift her message to that of a nominee-in-waiting: aiming all of her fire at Trump and the Republicans. Much of the media will follow her lead, helping in the process of defining Democratic race in her favor. Sanders makes a good case that this is unfair to voters in the vast majority of states that have yet to vote, but that will not stop much of the media from flipping over to a focus on Clinton-Trump scenarios.
4. Bernie Sanders has to win some states. Sanders is all but certain to carry Vermont, and he could take several other states: Minnesota, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma. If he wins all or most of those states, along with Vermont, Sanders has a “comeback kid” scenario he can present. That’s important as the race moves quickly to key states such as Michigan and Ohio. It’s also important for the long term. Later on the primary and caucus schedule, there are days that favor Sanders, when the senator can win key states. Sanders has the money to keep in competition—he raised more than $40 million in small donations during the month of February—but he needs to be able to point to evidence of momentum.
5. Beneath the pattern of state wins and losses, look for patterns of delegate wins. Some of the states that are voting and caucusing today have small numbers of pledged delegates at stake (16 for Republicans and 16 for Democrats in Vermont, 40 for Republicans and 32 for Democrats in Arkansas). On the other hand, Texas is huge: with 155 Republican delegates at stake and 222 pledged delegates for Democrats in play. In the big states, second-place finishes really can matter. On the Democratic side, a solid second-place finish in Texas could give Sanders more delegates than a win in Oklahoma. On the Republican side, a strong finish in Texas and lots of strong second-place finishes in states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma could yield Cruz a delegate total that helps him to make his case for carrying on as the conservative alternative to Trump.
6. One final note on the Democratic side when it comes to delegates: Watch for pledged-delegate numbers. Don’t get thrown by the inclusion of superdelegates in the totals, as superdelegates are not being chosen today. Superdelegates choose who to support on their own, not on the basis of voting or caucuses. Clinton is way ahead with superdelegates, and today’s actual voting won’t change that. But here’s a scenario where today matters in the superdelegate race: If Clinton runs very well, she’s likely to attract more backing from Democratic officials and party leaders. On the other hand, if Sanders shows strength, the superdelegates who have not yet announced their preferences will likely hold off for a bit longer. And, remember, superdelegates can (and do) switch their preferences as races evolve. And, despite the certainty with which pronouncements will be made tonight, the volatile 2016 presidential race will continue to evolve.