How the Southeast and the Media Have Corrupted Super Tuesday, and Maybe the Entire Primary: A Q&APhoto by Ron Jenkins/Getty Politics Features
I have a question for Democrats, regardless of who you support: How do you feel about the American southeast, which will inevitably vote for the Republican candidate in November, deciding the Democratic nominee? How do you feel about stronghold states like California and New York having almost no influence? Does it seem a little ridiculous?
How about this one: Is it okay with you that the media has created a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein the “winner” of Super Tuesday is declared unbeatable because of “momentum”? Is it okay that they’ve granted themselves this power at the expense of every state in America that votes after Super Tuesday?
If any of this strikes you as a bit odd, a bit corrupt, and a bit enraging, you’ll want to read on to learn how it came into existence, how it works against actual progressives, and how the southeast made a successful power play to overload Super Tuesday with the so-called “SEC” states, snatching more than their fair share of influence over a process that is nominally democratic.
Let’s start digging, Q&A style.
Q: Okay, I need to know the basics. What is Super Tuesday?
A: After a slow, month-long start to the primary process, with voting in four different states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—things kick into high gear on Super Tuesday. In a torrent of participatory democracy, primaries or caucuses are held in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. Additionally, Republicans will hold caucuses in Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. That’s eleven states for the Democrats, and 14 for the Republicans.
Q: When is Super Tuesday?
A: Uhhh…it’s today.
Q: Oh, shit. So wait, what’s the problem with Super Tuesday? People have to vote sometime.
Good question, and I’ll answer by focusing on the Democratic primary. Look at those first 11 states again. Notice anything peculiar? If not, let me do a regional breakdown for you:
Northeast states: 2
Midwestern states: 1
Southwestern states: 1
Southeastern states plus Texas: 7
Q: That seems a little off.
A: Just a little, right? There’s a reason the first four primaries/caucuses are spread throughout the country, with one northeastern state (New Hampshire), one midwestern (Iowa), one southwestern (Nevada), and one southeastern (South Carolina). There are profound regional differences in this country, both demographically and philosophically. It’s been that for a very long time, and spreading out the influence is a good way to ensure that none of these factions override the others.
Q: So why does the southeast have more than half the fun on Super Tuesday?
A: To paraphrase Rust Cohle, now you’re asking the right f***ing questions.
This information is surprisingly hard to Google, because the scheduling all happens on a state-wide level. It’s easy to conclude that the whole thing is a weird coincidence, but as anyone with even a little experience studying American politics understands, there are no coincidences.
We have to start in 1984, when Walter Mondale, a Minnesota liberal, won the party nomination just before getting a severe electoral ass-kicking from Ronald Reagan. At the time, America was deeply conservative—this was the heighten of the Reagan revolution—and the time wasn’t right for any Democrat. But it’s instructive to look at the state-by-state results from that year, particularly on the first big multi-primary day. On March 13, the following states voted:
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island
You’ll notice it’s slightly more balanced, especially when you consider that the four states voting before March 13 were Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming. Mondale actually won the SEC states that day (Georgia, Alabama), while Gary Hart took the northern states and the pseudo-southern state (Florida).
But the Democrats overreacted, as Democrats do, and decided that the only way to get a candidate elected in the new conservative America was to put a moderate at the top of the ticket. And the way to do that was to put the moderate states—i.e., the south—first.
Q: How did that work out?
A: Poorly. In 1988, they seem to have forgotten that black people are also allowed to vote. They did an incredible stacking job, with 12 states from Texas to Florida all voting on March 8 (out of 20 total), but Jesse Jackson spoiled the fun by sweeping the deep south states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, and also Virginia. Al Gore, the type of politician meant to be the beneficiary of the new system, won Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but the split in the southern states meant that Michael Dukakis, a Massachusetts liberal, would go on to dominate the northern and western states, and win the nomination. Almost by accident, the south was nullified, and the state governments more or less backed off the Super Tuesday strategy.
Q: But didn’t it work in 1992, with Arkansas’ Bill Clinton?
A: Not in the way you’d think. Things were a little more balanced that year, but of Clinton’s nine state wins before March 10, six of them came from the southeast. The region still mattered, but it wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it had been in ‘88, because the primaries were spread out.
To finish up the history lesson, there was almost no imbalance left by 2000, and Al Gore didn’t need any help defeating Bill Bradley in every state on the docket. But 2004 might be the most interesting case study of all. On “Mini Tuesday,” only one true southeastern state was represented—South Carolina—and it was won by John Edwards. John Kerry won the rest, and coasted to the nomination, but it would have been fascinating to see how the race might have been different for Edwards, a North Carolina politician, if the schedule had looked like it did in ‘88.
Finally, in 2008, Barack Obama had one of the strongest coalitions in Democratic presidential campaign history, and the map was irrelevant—his support among the black community overrode any good feeling Hillary Clinton might have retained from her husband’s southern connections.
Q: Okay, so what’s happening now? Why are we dealing with this again?
A: After the failure of 1988, many southern states walked away from the primary plan, convinced it wasn’t the path to commanding real influence. But last year, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, decided to make a push for a so-called SEC primary. He rallied his own state, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee to the cause, and after some initial struggle in the state legislatures, he’d secured his result: A Super Tuesday dominated by the south.
Q: But why didn’t other states respond? Can’t anyone do this?
A: Yes, but it was basically a surprise. In the next election cycle, you’ll probably see a response from the western states, in particular, who are almost totally unrepresented in primaries today. But it was too late to act for 2016. The south acted first.
Q: So the plan worked.
A: It worked well. Candidates are holding rallies in the south, and the region commands more attention than any time since ‘88.
Q: What was Kemp’s ultimate goal?
A: Honestly? It seems like it was influence alone. Ted Cruz is the only real “southern” candidate running on the GOP side, and he’s not exactly the good-ole-boy type that might rally the entire region to his side. In fact, the system is actually set to benefit Donald Trump the most. The south may be the “moderate” region of the country on the Dem side, but it trends to the outer reaches of the right wing for the GOP, and even though Trump isn’t a southerner by birth, he’s speaking their language and is primed to have a very good night.
Q: How about on the Democrats’ side?
There’s a little irony here, because I seriously doubt Kemp knew how much he’d be benefitting Hillary Clinton when he formed the SEC primary. For reasons that are still somewhat mysterious, Clinton has an ironclad hold on the southern black vote—by an insane 84-16 margin in South Carolina, per the entrance polls—and will almost certainly have an excellent showing. This is, in fact, her strongest region of the country, and barring a miracle, she’ll get to celebrate an emphatic victory on the very first big night of the primary schedule.
Q: So you’re saying her best states come first?
A: Let’s put it this way: Here are Five Thirty Eight’s projected state-by-state results from March 22 onward, based on the premise that Sanders and Clinton would be tied nationally (a premise that is not yet true, but doesn’t matter for this exercise, which is only designed to show which states have demographics that favor each candidate):
Pretty crazy, right? Sanders has the lead in 21 of 25 states. Now let’s look at the projected results—again with the assumption of a tie in the national polls—from states that vote any time between tonight and March 15:
This time, it’s an 11-11 tie. Forgetting the accuracy of those numbers, what these two charts show is that of the 15 remaining states where Hillary Clinton has favorable demographics, 11 of them get to vote in the next two weeks—and truth be told, considering the strength of her black support in South Carolina, you can add Tennessee to that list as well.
That’s insanely imbalanced. That’s basically a gerrymandered primary.
Q: So that’s what she meant by her “firewall.”
Q: But wait—I still don’t see the problem. Those other states, where Sanders theoretically leads, still get to vote. Who cares if her “good” states come first—Sanders will just make up ground later.
A: Ahhh, and here’s where we get to the really big figure in this whole system: The mainstream media. Because you’re right—in a sane world, the running order of the primaries and caucuses wouldn’t matter.
We do not live in a sane world. See, the media has utterly transformed American political dialogue since the invention of TV, to the point that it’s become a very loud, very ridiculous echo chamber. The media of 2016 loves the horse race, and hates nuance. They love the idea of “momentum,” and the way they present this “momentum” is entirely dependent on how they create it themselves. So yes, it matters quite a bit that Clinton’s best states come first, because the media has decided it matters. And once the media defines its own distorted, self-promoted reality, they will defend their turf with all the deafening volume they can muster. All other versions of the truth will be drowned out.
Q: And so other states are essentially disenfranchised?
Let me put this simply: People in California should not give two shits what happens in South Carolina. The politics in the two states aren’t remotely similar, and there’s no reason that South Carolina should be more “important” in the national race. But that’s the reality. The media loves to grasp onto small stories and blow them out of proportion, so when Hillary won in South Carolina—a state she has literally no chance of taking in November—she had “momentum.”
Ditto for Nevada, which is even more ridiculous. She led by 37 points in that state last July, and won the caucus by five points. By any reasonable interpretation, Bernie Sanders was the one with lots and lots of momentum. But the mainstream media isn’t about reasonable interpretations—they’re about promoting the shallowest analysis of results, and extrapolating from there. Hillary won, so she had “momentum,” despite losing 30 points in a period of six months.
And it’s going to be worse tonight and tomorrow. The fact that 64 percent of votes tonight will be cast in her small demographic stronghold—and as such, is a pretty poor representation of the American public—will barely get a mention. Instead, you’ll watch the start of a coronation.
Q: So what if the media took the approach that Sanders is bound for a slow start, but poised for a strong finish?
A: But you see, they won’t. That would require patience and a long view, and the system is set up to reward sensationalism and overblown reactions.
Q: And you’re saying that this approach influences the way people think and behave?
A: It absolutely does. Tonight on CNN, you will have a roundtable of experts proclaiming that the race is over. Some of them, like Paul Begala, work for Clinton super-PACs, or are connected in other compromising ways. They’ll blather on about her invincibility, and it’s all because the calendar is stacked in her favor.
That sad pantomime is inevitable, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict exactly how it’ll play out. It’s how the system works.
Q: I just want to be totally clear: You’re saying the media is both the creator and enforcer of the idea that Super Tuesday will decide the primary race?
Yes. It’s the hysterical horn-blower of its own hysterical nonsense, and at this point it’s grown loud enough to be taken seriously. Welcome to the tragedy of American electoral politics in 2016.
Q: How do we overcome this media bias?
A: It’s easy. Just stop listening. Stop caring. Treat the primary like it is—a long process that runs through June. Don’t buy into “momentum” narratives, because they’re only valid if you buy into what the mainstream media is selling. If you stop caring what they say, here’s a shocking truth: Your vote will count just as much as a South Carolina vote, even though you cast it in April or May.
Q: Can that actually happen?
Q: Give it to me straight.
A: I guess it depends on whether you believe the media has succeeded in brainwashing an entire country, or whether we’re capable of rejecting these enforced narratives and thinking for ourselves.
A: Yeah, hmmm…
Q: Is it okay if I cry now?
A: Go ahead. I’ll just be over here, punching this wall.