Some newscasts are calling today Super Tuesday, and your memory isn’t playing tricks on you if you’re thinking, Didn’t we just have one of those? Today, when voters go to the polls in five big states — Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and North Carolina — marks the second crucial, all-important, potentially decisive primary day in two weeks. But this time, one, or potentially both, nominations could be all but sealed by the end of the night.
As usual, all eyes will be on Donald Trump, because, really, who can look away? The edgy rage and sporadic violence that has characterized his rallies over the past week won’t be in evidence when he takes the podium tonight at his Palm Beach resort club, Mar-a-Lago. The audiences at his victory parties-cum-press conferences are limited to supporters and the media, and the events typically find the candidate on his best behavior. But by the end of the evening, if he wins all five states — and polls say it’s possible — he will have put away two of his three remaining rivals, and substantially widened his lead over the one left standing.
On the Democratic side, the nomination is, and almost surely will still be tomorrow, Hillary Clinton’s to lose. But following her startling defeat in Michigan last week, Clinton could, in fact, lose. Today’s voting should give an indication of whether Sanders is strong enough to win.
Here are some things to watch for as the results come in:
The question is into whose hands the tattered banner of Not-Trump will fall. Marco Rubio, who until a few weeks ago was widely considered Trump’s most plausible challenger, is now fighting for his life in his home state of Florida, where Trump has led in every poll taken since last July — most recently by around 20 points. (Rubio has won just three contests, including, on Saturday, the Washington, D.C., Republican caucus, virtually the definition of a Pyrrhic victory.)
Polls, of course, can be wrong — as they were, spectacularly, in Michigan, where Sanders eked out a 1.5 percent margin after surveys taken just days before the vote showed him trailing by as much as 27 points. More promisingly, in Virginia, Rubio managed in two days to come from 15 points down in the polling to within three points of Trump. But Virginia and Michigan were seeing those candidates for the first time; Rubio has been in Florida politics since the late 1990s and is certainly a known quantity to Florida voters.
And Florida is a winner-take-all state, so Rubio’s specialty — of exceeding expectations and claiming a moral victory — won’t work this time. He’s out of it unless he wins. And if by some chance he does win, the implications will be huge, not just for the GOP race, but for the entire industry of political prognostication.
Watch for: The expression on Rubio’s face when he realizes his career in politics may be over — at least for the foreseeable future.
There’s an analogous situation in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich is making his last stand in another winner-take-all state. The difference is that Kasich is in a dead heat with Trump in the most recent polls, and the momentum has been swinging his way.
Even a victory there would leave Kasich far behind in the delegate count, however. His only hope for the nomination is as part of an anti-Trump coalition at the national convention. Rubio is hoping for the same thing, which is why his campaign has thrown in the towel on Ohio and is calling on voters there to support the governor. Mitt Romney, the leader by default of the effort to stop Trump, has been campaigning with Kasich, although he won’t make an endorsement until after the smoke clears tonight.
Watch for: Establishment Republicans parachuting in to climb onstage with Kasich.
The other three states voting award their delegates by some formula, so are less likely to be decisive — and have attracted less polling and attention from the candidates. In all of them, Trump holds significant, although not overwhelming, leads, with Cruz in second place. If both Rubio and Kasich are effectively eliminated today, Trump’s margins will be scrutinized closely for clues to the race going forward. Cruz will need to show strength beyond the mostly rural Western states, where he has won most of his delegates so far.
Watch for: A possible upset win by Cruz. Best shot: Missouri, where Trump led by just 7 points in the most recent polling.
If Bernie Sanders has a realistic chance of becoming the Democratic nominee, we should know it by the time the votes are counted tonight. Clinton’s strength among older voters and African-Americans should make for easy wins in Florida and North Carolina, so Sanders will have to duplicate his Michigan Miracle in at least two of the remaining states.
In fact, he’ll need to improve on it; the party awards its delegates proportionately, so narrow victories do little to improve his relative standing where it matters, in votes at the national convention. Clinton is ahead in the polls in all five states, but Sanders sees opportunities in Ohio, like Michigan a rust-belt state with a major public university whose students would benefit from his free-tuition plan. And he thinks he has a chance in Illinois, where he has been campaigning on Clinton’s long-standing ties to Chicago’s unpopular Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration has been accused of covering up the details of a police shooting of a black teenager.
In the bigger picture, Sanders has to hope he can translate moral victories into practical ones. Clinton’s two-to-one lead in the delegate count is built mostly on “superdelegates,” who are party functionaries or elected officials appointed by the party. Surveys indicate they mostly do support the former First Lady, but unlike the pledged delegates chosen in primaries, they can change their allegiance at the convention. A strong showing by Sanders today could strengthen his case, especially if he makes inroads with black voters in cities like Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis. There aren’t many more Southern states left for Clinton to win, but New York, Pennsylvania and California will get their say eventually — if Sanders is still around by late spring.
Watch for: Exit polling in big cities showing a swing to Sanders.