March 1 is America’s “Super Tuesday”, the day when a plethora of states and territories will hold presidential primaries and caucuses to pick the parties' presidential nominees. While Hillary Clinton, having just avenged her defeat in New Hampshire by demolishing Bernie Sanders is widely expected to have a good night, onlookers will be be wondering how far Donald Trump can take his shockingly successful run for the Republican nomination.
Here are five things to bear in mind as the results come in.
#1: It’s all about delegates
We know that winning a primary or caucus is important, but it’s easy to forget why. The point of the primaries is to narrow down the field of candidates by assigning them delegates, allocated mostly according to the results of primary elections in the states. The delegates vote for the candidates at the party’s presidential nominating conventions in the summer, where the candidate with the most delegates becomes that party’s nominee for the general election.
In the Republican race there are 2,472 delegates up for grabs overall, and the overwhelming majority are state delegates allocated during the primaries. So far, Trump has won 82 delegates, more than any other Republican candidate. That’s 6.6% of the 1,237 needed to win the nomination.
Super Tuesday sees 595 delegates up for grabs in 11 states holding contests for the Republican nomination, more than any other day in the primary season. So the question won’t be who wins the most states, but who wins the most delegates.
Here’s how the delegates are distributed across the Super Tuesday states (Colorado and Wyoming will be holding caucuses on the day, but will not allocate their delegates based on the results).
#2: The party leadership doesn’t love Trump
Each of Super Tuesday’s states (except Georgia) has three “party” Republican delegates available. These delegates are the state party chair, the national committeeman and national committeewoman, and it is unclear how they will vote (in some states, they are allocated like the rest of the delegates; in others, they are free to vote how they choose).
Although small in number, Super Tuesday’s 30 party delegates total more than either Alaska or Vermont have regular delegates (not to mention New Hampshire). These delegates are party leaders, and party leaders are currently not fans of Donald Trump.
#3: Most Republicans don’t love Trump
The chart below shows that Trump has received a total of 33% of the Republican primary votes so far. That means 67% of voters do not support him.
We haven’t seen strong opposition to Trump because currently, that 67% are splitting their votes among several other candidates. As the field narrows, these voters will redistribute their votes, and polls show that they won’t be putting them behind Trump. Trump is the first choice of more primary voters than any other, but he is the second choice of almost no-one.
#4: Texas doesn’t love TrumpTexas has more Republican delegates in play than any other state on Super Tuesday; in the entire contest, only California (to vote on June 7) will have more. In fact, at 155, Texas alone has more delegates available than have been allocated in the primaries so far. It’s no coincidence that the last Republican debate was held in Houston.
Texas also has a history of supporting its own. So even though Texas senator Ted Cruz was viewed as marginalised, and Trump took up roughly a third of the talking time in the Houston debate, forecasters estimate there’s still an 82% chance that Cruz will win Texas.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Cruz will win all 155 Texan delegates. In contrast to the primaries occurring later in the year, Republican primaries held prior to March 15 allocate delegates on a proportional basis. That means “winning” Super Tuesday doesn’t just mean winning states, but also winning a lot of the people in those states. And this is where Trump could have an advantage.
#5: Super Tuesday isn’t winner-take-all
In order to get delegates in a particular state, a candidate has to achieve a minimum threshold of votes. If a candidate receives less than the required threshold, the votes that would have gone to them are often reallocated to the state winner. These thresholds heavily favour the frontrunner, which bodes well for Trump outside of Texas.
Even rigorous forecasting sites such as FiveThirtyEight are not ready to predict the voting outcome in all of Tuesday’s primaries, let alone the delegate count. But let’s say the Republican candidates perform as the folks at FiveThirtyEight and Politico are currently expecting.
Given each state’s number of “bound” delegates and thresholds and the predictions for each state’s allocation of votes, we can translate the polling predictions into convention delegates. If they’re accurate, the rough allocation of Super Tuesday votes would give the most to Trump (173 votes), followed by Marco Rubio (119), Ted Cruz (93), Ben Carson (21), and John Kasich (11). But crucially, at the end of the day, 231 of the night’s 595 delegates would still be unbound.
So the question is not whether Trump will “win” Super Tuesday; he’s very likely to get more delegates than any other candidate. The question is what will happen afterwards – when Kasich and Carson eventually drop out, their supporters in subsequent primaries are likely to move to Rubio and Cruz. And when we move to the winner-takes-all delegate allocation, this could be enough to inch one of the remaining candidates ahead of Trump.