The Hobo Guide to the Democratic Primaries and Super Tuesday
Let’s Start With the Basics, What’s a Primary?
A primary is how American political parties select their candidates for election. These are held at all levels of government, not just for presidential elections. Most countries have a similar process, but they are generally far less public and the first the general public hears is when the selected candidate is confirmed.
By contrast, primaries are effectively a preliminary election campaign, with all the advertising, debates, and armies of volunteers that come with it. A bit like qualifiers for the World Cup or the Olympics, you must win one competition before you get to compete in the main one.
Officially both the Republican and Democratic Parties are holding primaries to select their candidates for President but as Donald Trump is already President, his nomination in the Republican primaries is just a formality. The last major challenge to a sitting president in a primary was in 1980 and no president has ever been beaten in a primary. Consequently, all the attention for this election will be on the Democratic Primaries.
The Democratic Race
There have been 29 candidates for the Democratic nomination, though most dropped out before voting started. Initially the field was diverse, with multiple female and/or POC in the running. But going into Super Tuesday, there was only one woman left and more white male billionaires than POC. The candidates still running for nomination included Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren.
Those of you unfamiliar with politics might assume that whoever gets the majority of the vote, or at least the most votes of any candidate, wins the nomination. Sadly, it’s not as simple as that, especially in America, as Hillary Clinton can tell you. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs a majority of delegates, in this case 1990 (not including super delegates — more on them later).
Rules, Rules, and More Rules
This is because instead of having one national primary, all 50 states have their own election with their own set of rules on who can vote and how. They started on February 3rd and won’t finish until June 6th, though the majority take place in March, with 1344 delegates allocated on Super Tuesday, the biggest primary day where over a dozen states vote including California and Texas.
States are allocated delegates by population and candidates are awarded them based on how well they do in that state. Unlike in the Presidential election, where the candidate who gets the most votes wins all the delegates for that state, the Democratic Primaries award delegates proportionally based on how many votes each candidate gets. This means that ‘winning’ a state is psychologically important, but unless the victory is large, it won’t mean many more delegates.
However, candidates only receive delegates when they get at least 15% of the vote in the state or district within each state. A candidate with 14% will get nothing and all the delegates will be shared among those who reach 15%. In 2008 and 2016, this didn’t really matter, as there were only two candidates who both reached 15% in almost every district in the country, but this time with multiple candidates still competing, the 15% barrier is a major challenge to most candidates, who are polling below 15% in some states and districts. Currently, the only candidate polling high enough to clear this barrier across most states and districts is Bernie Sanders, and if this continues, could be a major advantage in the race to 1990 delegates.
The Lead Up to Super Tuesday:
For people unfamiliar with American election campaigns, they tend to be around four ice ages long. John Delaney started campaigning over three years before the Presidential election, but dropped out in January this year before the voting had even started.
Joe Biden announced he was running in April 2019. However, poor results in Iowa and New Hampshire damaged voters’ confidence in his campaign and his support dropped as Sanders’ rose and Bloomberg emerged, wallet first, spending over half a billion USD on his campaign before Super Tuesday. Before Super Tuesday, only 155 delegates had been awarded; the influence of results in the early stages is more to do with momentum than delegates. Super Tuesday is where reality comes back to bite most candidates.
Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer chose not to wait until Super Tuesday, dropping out of the race after underperforming in the South Carolina primary three days before Super Tuesday. Their departure combined with Biden’s success in South Carolina gave his campaign a significant boost going into Super Tuesday, particularly Buttigieg and Klobuchar who were polling around 15% between them and who endorsed Biden just before Super Tuesday.
However, the boost was significantly reduced because Klobuchar, Steyer, and Buttigieg’s names will still be on the ballot and millions of people have already voted early in Super Tuesday states. These ‘wasted’ votes cannot be transferred to another candidate; more than 400,000 votes went to candidates who had dropped out in California alone.
Nevertheless, the boost they gave Biden was enough to ensure that he cleared the 15% barrier in all states and won the majority of them including Massachusetts, home state of Elizabeth Warren and Texas, the second-largest state.
Sanders won the remaining states and will most likely finish narrowly behind Biden, largely thanks to his big win in California, which had 415 delegates on its own. Biden and Sanders finished first and second in every state and only they have a realistic chance of winning the nomination.
Bloomberg and Warren did pick up some delegates, but they both fell short of the 15% barrier in most states and will be lucky to finish with 100 delegates while Biden and Sanders have already passed 500 and will most likely both reach 600. Bloomberg has already dropped out (after spending about 10 million USD per delegate won) and there will substantial pressure on Warren to drop out to avoid splitting progressive voters while moderates now only have Biden to vote for.
Despite leading the polls for most of last year, this is the first time that Biden has led the delegate count and now that the race is down to three (effectively two) candidates, the pressure will be intensified on both of them, but particularly Biden, who is now the presumptive nominee. The next tests for Biden and Sanders are the primaries on March 10th (Michigan is the most important state that day) and the next debate on March 15th.
There are no voting days bigger than Super Tuesday, but there are still around 2500 delegates to go. The other big voting days are March 10th, 17th, and April 28th, with over 1600 delegates allocated across those three days.
If no one reaches 1990 delegates by the end of the Primaries, then the negotiations begin at the convention and candidates will have to win the support of other candidates and/or the 771 votes of the super delegates (senior members of the Democratic party who can’t vote in the first ballot but afterwards can vote for whomever they like).
These superdelegates are expected to favour a moderate candidate, e.g. Biden, rather than a progressive, particularly Sanders, though if Sanders gets very close to 1990 delegates, they may hesitate to go against his supporters and risk losing their support for the Presidential election against Trump.
Even if there is a winner before the convention, the race is likely to remain competitive for months. Any hopes the Democratic Party had of a quick and easy win to allow more time to prepare for the Presidential battle with Trump have been firmly put to bed.