What Is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday refers to the date, usually in late February or early March in the U.S. presidential primary process, on which several states across the country hold their primary election contests simultaneously. These include both winner-takes-all elections and caucuses.

Key Takeaways

  • Super Tuesday, occurring in late February or early March, is when the most U.S. states hold their primary elections all on the same date.
  • In 2020, Super Tuesday fell on March 3 and for the first time, both California and Texas, the two most populous states in the union, held primaries on that date.
  • On Super Tuesday in 2020, more than one-third of the available Democratic delegates were up for grabs.
  • Super Tuesday results can make or break a primary campaign's chances of becoming the party's nominee.

Understanding Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday refers to the date in the U.S. presidential primary process when the greatest number of states hold their contests. Super Tuesday is not a set date from presidential cycle to presidential cycle, and the timing and states that participate varying greatly, depending on the particular primary year. In 2008, for example, 24 states held their contests on the same day, Feb. 5, while only 7 states held their contests on the same day on March 12, 1996.

According to NPR, the term "Super Tuesday" has been around since 1980, when Alabama, Florida, and Georgia all held their primaries on the same day.

However, the first true Super Tuesday contest didn't occur until 1988, when the Democrats attempted to end a string of disappointing presidential elections by concentrating 11 Southern primaries (and 20 primaries altogether) on one date. They hoped that moderate Dixiecrats would choose an electable candidate, but instead the Southern Democratic vote split along racial lines and allowed Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis to secure the nomination. He lost resoundingly to George H. W. Bush in the general election later that year.

2020 Super Tuesday

In 2020, Super Tuesday fell on March 3. The focus was more-so on the Democratic party as several candidates vied for the opportunity to challenge Donald Trump to become the next President of the United States. Notably, 14 states and the U.S. territory of American Samoa participated with a total of 1,344 delegates, or about 34% (1344/3977) of the available Democratic delegates, up for grabs.

The states involved, with Democratic delegates in parentheses, were as follows:

  • Alabama (52)
  • American Samoa (6)
  • Arkansas (31)
  • California (415)
  • Colorado (67)
  • Maine (24)
  • Massachusetts (91)
  • Minnesota (75)
  • North Carolina (110)
  • Oklahoma (37)
  • Tennessee (64)
  • Texas (228)
  • Utah (29)
  • Vermont (16)
  • Virginia (99)

2016 Super Tuesday

In 2016, March 1 was Super Tuesday, with both Democrats and Republicans holding primaries in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia, and caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. Republicans also held caucuses in Alaska and Wyoming, while Democrats held caucuses in American Samoa, a territory.

In 2016, about half of the 1,237 Republican delegates needed to win the nomination were up for grabs, while Democrats apportioned 880 delegates, about a third of those needed to win. The contest was an "SEC Primary," referring to the Southeastern Conference of the NCAA because it was heavily concentrated in the South. This had particular implications for each party. For the Republicans, it meant a higher concentration of evangelical voters. For the Democrats, it meant a higher proportion of black voters, as Southern white Democrats have become much rarer since the 1980s.

The Democrats who competed for their party's nomination on Super Tuesday 2016 were Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; Hilary Clinton ultimately secured her party's nomination and went on to compete against Donald Trump in the Presidential election in the fall of 2016. The Republicans who competed for their party's nomination on Super Tuesday 2016 were Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and eventual Republican nominee Donald Trump. Donald Trump ended up winning the Republican party's nomination and ultimately defeating Hilary Clinton in the general election in November of that year.