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Counting Down To Super Tuesday: What's At Stake For Democrats Running For President

Map of states holding a presidential primary on March 3, 2020.
Map of states holding a presidential primary on March 3, 2020.

Super Tuesday primary elections are just a few days away. An estimated 40% of the U.S. population will participate in primaries or caucuses on March 3. 

KERA's Think and KQED’s The California Report teamed up for a “Countdown to Super Tuesday" special that explores what's at stake on that day. Here are highlights of what journalists and experts had to say:

What Will It Mean?

More than 30% of Democratic delegates are at stake on Super Tuesday — almost half of them coming from Texas and California. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders is leading with 45 delegates, while Pete Buttigieg is in second place with 25 delegates. 

Domenico Montanaro, NPR’s senior politics editor, said if Sanders does particularly well in Texas and California, his lead could be insurmountable. 

“If Sanders is able to build the kind of lead that’s possible, if someone just allows him to take hold in those places, you can’t catch somebody when they have that big of a lead in that kind of a state with those delegates being as large as they are,” Montanaro said. 

On the other hand, candidates who perform poorly will have to seriously reconsider dropping out.

“If you come out fifth place, fourth place after Super Tuesday, what is your viable path forward at that point?” he said. “I think that has to be a real conversation within the campaigns.” Montanaro said candidates need to appeal to more than just white voters.

What Will It Take?

“You’ve got to be able to win over voters of color and that is in California, Texas, North Carolina,” he said. 

For the first time, Latino voters will be the largest minority group of voters — an estimated 32 million are eligible to vote this year. 

Montanaro said front-runner Bernie Sanders’ win in Nevada was “eye-opening” because of the way he appealed to Latino voters, winning over 50% of their votes. He said Latinos will continue to play an important role in the elections. 

“If you look at Super Tuesday, California and Texas, Colorado, potentially have really big populations of Democratic Latinos who could really make a big difference with huge caches of delegates in those states,” he said. 

democratic candidates on debate stage
Credit Matt Rourke / Associated Press
Associated Press
From the left, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer.
How Might This Super Tuesday Be Different?

Data from political polling website FiveThirtyEight shows there is more than a 40% chance that the primary may not produce a candidate with a majority. Montanaro said with such a divided field, there is a possibility for a “brokered convention” — when a party fails to choose a nominee on the first round — which hasn’t happened since 1952. 

“When you have a splintered field like this, it doesn’t take complex mathematical models to realize that it’s not going to be that easy to get 50% plus one,” he said. “The magical number is 1,991 delegates.” 

But Montanaro said Democratic officials want to avoid a brokered convention. He said it is likely the party will give the race to the person who leads by more than a roughly 5% margin, especially if the nominee is Bernie Sanders, who has a strong base that he said is unlikely to vote for another Democratic candidate. 

Jack Pitney, professor of political science at Claremont-McKenna in Southern California, said delegates and superdelegates would have an important role if a brokered convention took place. 

“In the past, they haven’t really been major decision-makers, but if the nomination goes to more than one ballot, delegates will count,” he said. “Candidates will start getting in touch with the delegates, trying to persuade them.” 

Then, Pitney said superdelegates, who can’t vote on the first ballot according to new rules, will finally come into play. 

“It’s not going to be like days when governors could deliver large chunks of delegates, but they will have influence and how that works out nobody really knows,” he said. 

Still, Montanaro said the results of Super Tuesday will provide “a clearer picture” of the splintered Democratic field. 

“We’re going to have a whole lot more data,” he said. “A whole lot more information. A whole lot more vote results.”

Listen to the full Countdown to Super Tuesday Special

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.