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Why Don't All States Vote on Super Tuesday?

The story behind our convoluted primary system.


Today is Super Tuesday, the day a bunch of states (this year, 10) hold their primary elections. Some states voted earlier, and some states will vote after the big day. The conventional wisdom is that Super Tuesday decides the race, or at the very least steers it to an inevitable conclusion.

Isn't it weird that we just accept that? What exactly is Super Tuesday, and why don't we all vote in the presidential primary on the same date? If you're anything like me, you have gone this far in life without understanding the logic or value in our presidential primary system. A cursory Google search many frustrated voters like me. For all those confused Americans, a primary rundown:


Not every Super Tuesday is the same; there are half as many states participating this year as there were in 2008. It's also a relatively recent invention: Before 1988, states chose their own primary or caucus dates, with New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada holding theirs first. But that year, southern Democrats scheduled nine state primaries on the same day in order to wield their influence. Other non-Southern states applauded the idea. Grouping so many states together, they reasoned, would deflect the campaign away from “retail politics”—candidates appealing to voters on a local level—in favor of a broader appeal to the entire country.

So why aren't all presidential primaries held on the same day? One argument is that candidates wouldn't be able to campaign in as many individual states, forcing them to rely less on appearances and more on advertising. Not only is this an often inefficient way to reach voters, it's also expensive, which means the richest candidates would have an even greater advantage over grassroots ones. Plus, candidates would be inclined to focus their efforts only on the states with the most people or political influence, leaving smaller ones in the dust.

Super Tuesday appears to be a a compromise between one huge primary and an endless piecemeal race. But where does that leave the remaining states? Some complain that the earlier contests carry too much influence, with an early win in Nevada or New Hampshire sometimes providing enough momentum to ride out the whole race. (Those states also become disproportionately influential in general; some claim corn subsidies in Iowa only lasted so long because candidates needed to pledge to uphold them during the primary.) Meanwhile, states holding their primaries after Super Tuesday—some of which, like California or New York, are huge compared to earlier states—feel their votes don’t matter. As a result, primary dates have inched earlier and earlier, with some now taking place during the first week of the year.

So that nagging question remains: Why do some states get to go first? Most experts tacitly agree it's "tradition." When it comes to our primaries, some things are true simply because we don't bother changing them.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user trekkyandy.

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