Why the First Super Tuesday Was Not So Super

tags: election 2016, Super Tuesday

Sean Braswell is a Senior Writer at OZY. He has five degrees and writes about history, politics, film, sports, and anything in which he gets to use the word “dystopian.”

Super Tuesday seemed like a good idea in theory. It was believed by the Southern Democrats who came up with the mammoth election event in the early 1980s that having a dozen-plus Southern and border states vote on the same March day would drown out the results of the traditional bellwethers, Iowa and New Hampshire, and drive the selection of a nominee with a broader appeal — and who was not too liberal for Southern tastes.

Reality had other ideas. The first full Super Tuesday contest, held on March 8, 1988 (a smaller version had been attempted in 1984), in which voters in 20 states went to the ballot, defied its creators’ expectations on almost every level. Not only did the one-day extravaganza dilute support for the more moderate Southern candidates in the race and anoint a Northern liberal as the Democratic front-runner, but its split-decision results also led to a protracted nomination battle that paved the way for one clear victor on the Democrats’ “super” day: Republican nominee George H.W. Bush.

Super Tuesday was invented as a “grand and futile prophylaxis against a liberal nominee,” writes Richard Ben Cramer in his account of the 1988 election, What It Takes. As Cramer chronicles, the two centrist Democratic candidates best suited in theory to benefit from the mega-contest, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who had won in Iowa, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., were in actuality the two least situated to feast on the the Southern electoral smorgasbord. For one thing, they had to battle each other for every white, middle-income, blue-collar moderate in the region. For another, there was the wild-card factor of Jesse Jackson, whose base among Black voters — 25 percent of Southern Democrats at the time — could launch his own candidacy, or at least handicap Gore and Gephardt’s efforts.

More than anything, however, the sheer size and scope of the Super Tuesday battlefield — stretching from El Paso to Key West to Cape Cod and spanning 140 congressional districts and 70 million Americans — made the contest daunting. “They created a monster, which no candidate can control,” the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato told the Los Angeles Times.

Gephardt began to realize just how futile conventional campaigning would be while flying between campaign stops in Texas and Florida. In Texarkana, where he did a photo shoot with one foot in Texas and one in Arkansas, he joked to his aide Joe Trippi, “Is this our idea of covering two states?” The run-up to Super Tuesday “had the feel of a mass airplane hijacking,” Hendrik Hertzberg reflected in the New Republic, “as planeloads of desperate candidates and their journalistic hostages flew from tarmac to tarmac, stopping only to refuel and blink into television lights.” ...

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