It hasn’t even happened yet but Super Tuesday is already a failure.
In fact, the biggest day on the presidential primary calendar — of which Virginia is a part — has been a failure from the beginning. That failure will just be more evident in 2020, although that failure should be clear enough here in 2019.
That’s four “failures” right from the start, which is exactly the number of times that there’s been a Democratic presidential primary in Virginia. On the Republican side, we’ve had five but it’s hard to call them a failure because Republicans never had the same goals that Democrats did. The origin of Super Tuesday was very much a Democratic concept, with a specific goal, that never was achieved.
Before we understand why Super Tuesday 2020 won’t achieve that goal, either, let’s go back in time and look at just why there is a Super Tuesday.
In 1984, Democrats nominated Walter Mondale for president. He went on to win just one state against Ronald Reagan. Some Democrats —mind you, not all — thought the problem was that Democrats had gone too far to the left. They formed a group called the Democratic Leadership Council that tried to push more centrist policies. The organizers were almost entirely Southern Democrats — new-school, center-left Southern Democrats, but still more middle of the road than the rest of their party. One of the leaders of this effort was Virginia Gov. Charles Robb, then thought to harbor national aspirations. Another was the governor of Arkansas, who definitely harbored national aspirations. His name was Bill Clinton. These Southern Democrats thought one way to produce more moderate presidential candidates was to front-load the primary calendar with a lot of Southern primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire already had claim on being the first caucus state and the first primary state. Those couldn’t be dislodged. But others could be slotted right after them.
That’s how Super Tuesday was born, an attempt to rig the primary calendar to produce a more moderate Democratic nominee. Keep in mind that all these states would have voted anyway — but presidential primaries are all about who’s got the momentum. A candidate who jumps out to an early lead is often ordained as the prospective nominee even though most states haven’t voted yet. Parties like to coalesce around a winner as early as they can.
In 1988, 16 states held their primaries on a single day in early March — and three others held their caucuses the same night. Those 16 states included every state between Maryland and Texas with the exception of South Carolina. Those who know South Carolina know it’s always an exception. For all the build-up, Super Tuesday 1988 did not produce a more moderate nominee. It was basically a split decision that didn’t really change the dynamics. Al Gore, the moderate in that year’s race, won six states. But Michael Dukakis won eight, giving him the biggest haul of delegates — and the claim that the Massachusetts governor could win in the South. Jesse Jackson won five others — including Virginia, where he took 45 percent of the vote to 23 percent for Dukakis and 22 percent for Gore. Dukakis was the front-runner going into Super Tuesday; he was the front-runner coming out of it. He went on to win the nomination — and lose the election.
You can argue that Super Tuesday 1992 gave a big boost to Bill Clinton, the most moderate of the Democratic candidates that year — and it did. But then, the most serious challengers to his left had already faltered in New Hampshire. In more recent years, there often hasn’t been a serious “moderate” candidate in the sense that Super Tuesday’s founders intended. Instead, Democrats have moved to the left, Super Tuesday or no Super Tuesday. However, the Southern nature of the big primary day has proved difficult for certain types of liberal candidates — the ones who fail to attract much African-American support. The classic example of that is Bernie Sanders. In 2016, Hillary Clinton crushed Sanders on Super Tuesday. As a general rule, the more diverse a state was, the more poorly Sanders fared. Had the chronology of the 2016 primary season been different, you can argue that Sanders might have done better. The Southern states gave Clinton a boost of momentum — and delegates — that Sanders found hard to overcome.
As the 2020 field of candidates game out their strategies, certain ones see more of an opportunity on Super Tuesday than others, but that opportunity has little to do with ideology. Instead, both Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are hoping to do well with so many states that have big African-American populations. So, too, is Joe Biden. The biggest beneficiary of Super Tuesday on the Democratic side hasn’t been the white moderates for whom it was intended, but candidates — white or black, liberal or moderate — who can win African-American support. That’s not a bad thing, of course. In fact, it’s become a good way to winnow out Democrats who don’t have substantial African-American support. But it’s not what the founders intended.
Virginia hasn’t been competitive in any of the four Democratic primaries it’s held. Jackson won easily in 1984; John Kerry, Barack Obama and Clinton all won by wide margins in 2004, 2008 and 2016. In the five Republican primaries, Virginia’s only been close once: In 2016, the struggling Marco Rubio was looking to win somewhere, anywhere. He chose to make a stand in Virginia, the most suburban of any Super Tuesday state — Rubio did especially well with suburban Republicans. Still, Trump beat him in Virginia, 35 percent to 32 percent, effectively ending Rubio’s candidacy. Also, with the exception of that 2016 Republican primary, candidates haven’t particularly paid much attention to Virginia. The Democrats in 2020 will pay even less; Beto O’Rourke’s recent two-day swing notwithstanding. That’s because Super Tuesday 2020 has a new addition — the behemoth named California. Unhappy that the nation’s largest state has been relegated to the end of the primary season, California has jumped to early March. Super Tuesday 2020 will be regarded as California and Texas . . . and a bunch of other states that probably won’t matter much.
It’s too late to change the 2020 schedule but here’s a question both Democrats and Republicans should be asking themselves for 2024: Should Virginia still be part of a Super Tuesday, now that it’s been taken over by California? Or should we set a separate day, either before or after California, in hopes that candidates will pay at least a little attention to Virginia? Think about that over the coming year while you watch the candidates pass us by.