Super Tuesday Turned Into a Super Flop

Michael P. McDonald
Michael P. McDonald Former Brookings Expert, Associate Professor of Political Science - University of Florida

February 11, 2008

The Syndrome, the villain in the 2004 animated movie “The Incredibles,” is an ordinary guy who has a plan to put an end to superheroes by making everyone a superhero.

Syndrome’s evil machinations came to fruition on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008.

The political parties permit states to hold their presidential nominating contests as early as the first Tuesday in February, with familiar states such as Iowa and New Hampshire given exemptions. Other states jealous of the attention lavished on those early states plotted to make their primaries or caucuses sooner, sometimes even violating party rules and suffering a penalty as a consequence.

To quote Syndrome, when everyone is a super, no one is a super. And so it was with the Super Tuesday states.

Although not intended, a national primary emerged as 24 states fell over one another in a Keystone Kop spectacle by moving up their primaries and caucuses to Feb. 5.

Some argued that this would be good for the political parties in the general election since only a candidate who could run a national campaign would win the nomination.

Ironically, the candidates acted just like they do in a general election, where they concentrate on the competitive battleground states. On Super Tuesday they decided where they could be competitive, where they could pick up delegates, and targeted their scarce resources to those states.

States that thought they would be relevant found themselves irrelevant safe states that the candidates passed by and simply helped run up delegate totals for their favored candidate.

A year ago, the campaigns were focused on building organizations and cultivating supporters in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Some candidate strategies were solely focused on jump-starting their campaigns by winning these early states, and others hoped that decisive wins would quickly seal the nomination. Some of the better-financed campaigns could be forward-looking, but they still would not want to spend time and money on Super Tuesday states unless they were sure they would need to.

By the time the nomination process was whittled down to the remaining players and the campaigns could start their Super Tuesday planning, little time was left to advertise, send direct mail and build volunteer organizations. Even where the campaigns decided they could be competitive, too many states were in play for the campaigns to pour in the same resources they did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The resulting dynamic had a twofold effect on voter participation in this year of high voter interest.

Lack of competition drove down turnout in states such as New York, where Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) were expected to win big victories. Only 19 percent of eligible New Yorkers voted, compared with 53 percent in New Hampshire.

Lack of organization and campaigning drove turnout down across the board, as all primary states combined averaged a turnout rate of 29 percent. Poor organization particularly afflicted the caucuses, which require campaign organizations to mobilize supporters to give up an entire evening. While 16 percent of eligible Iowans attended caucuses, the combined attendance rate for the four states holding caucuses for both political parties was a meager 6 percent.

The silver lining is that continued voter interest buoyed participation where competition and organization failed. Turnout likely would have been much worse if the nominees already had been decided.

As we move forward from Super Tuesday, those states that did not crowd to the front of the line will now find themselves being courted a little more graciously and intensely by the campaigns. This should help increase voter participation. However, the nomination battles are still coming rather fast and furiously, so the campaigns still can’t give the extended engagement they do for the early states. Some campaigns are now facing hard choices as to where they can spend their limited remaining resources. Except for perhaps a few intensely fought competitive states remaining, voter turnout has thus likely peaked in this election cycle.

We expected Super Tuesday to soar into the stratosphere. Instead, it was more of a flop, a cheap imitation of Iowa and New Hampshire. When the dust settles after this primary season and we look back at how the parties nominate their candidates, we will still be searching for a way to have more equitable involvement by voters in all states.