The NCSL Blog


By Amanda Zoch

What’s so "super" about Super Tuesday?

Credit: JEFF SWENSEN/GETTY IMAGESWell, a whopping one-third of this year’s presidential delegates are at stake as 14 states—Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia—are set to hold their Democratic presidential primaries March 3.

(The GOP will hold primaries in all these states except Virginia, where the state party canceled its primary, anticipating incumbent President Donald Trump to clinch the Republican nomination.)

Leading up to a presidential election, states jockey to hold their presidential primaries at the most advantageous time, however that may be defined. Since the 2016 presidential election, legislatures in California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina and Utah have moved up their presidential primaries to Super Tuesday

Two of the Super Tuesday states—California and Texas—have the largest numbers of delegates per state: 415 and 228 pledged delegates, respectively. Whichever Democratic presidential candidate wins California and/or Texas will be perceived as having strong momentum, but delegate math is complicated.

The winner of California’s primary won’t win all 415 delegates. Instead, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) requires a proportional system. To oversimplify, a candidate receiving 38% of the vote will receive 38% of the state’s delegates. Candidates must receive at least 15% of the vote to be viable; anyone who fails to meet that threshold will receive zero delegates. (Want to get in the weeds? Try this.)

In contrast to the DNC, the Republican National Committee relegates delegate allocation rules to state parties and state laws. While many Republican primaries allocate delegates proportionally, some states—such as Florida and Ohio—use a “winner-take-all” system, where the candidate with the plurality, not necessarily a majority, receives all of that state’s delegates.

Different delegate allocation systems might mean different approaches to campaigning. In a winner-take-all state, a Republican candidate may be content to squeak out a win, still enough to secure all the state’s delegates. But a Democrat in the same state would find it nearly impossible to win the entire cache of delegates. Thus, the proportional system incentivizes winning big in order to capture as many delegates as possible.

Even though Super Tuesday 2020 includes more states than in 2016, with such a crowded Democratic race, winning big may be hard to do.

Amanda Zoch is an NCSL legislative policy specialist and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.