This Tuesday, March 1, 12 states and one territory will be holding presidential primaries or caucuses for one or both of the major American political parties. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia will see both parties vote. Republicans also head to the polls in Alaska while Democrats vote in Colorado and American Samoa.
Why do all of these states hold primaries on the same day? If you think it’s some grand bit of tradition synonymous with American democracy, it isn’t; Super Tuesday was born in 1988.
Southern states were tired of being completely shut out of the White House, so they decided to band together and create a super-primary where they could hold sway on the nomination process. By the late 1980s, the “first-in-the-nation” voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire were fairly set in their places. By 1988, only one southerner, Jimmy Carter, had been elected to the presidency in the past several decades. By banding together, the southern states vied to nominate a native son, or at least have a bigger influence on what the two parties did.
It didn’t work in 1988 — NPR notes that the 1988 Super Tuesday was a concoction of the Democratic Party, which nominated Massachusetts-born Michael Dukakis that year. The next two presidents, though, were from the South —Bill Clinton of Arkansas and George W. Bush of Texas. And the Democrats nominated another southerner, Al Gore of Tennessee, in 2000.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is clearly hoping that his southern roots will help propel him to victory on Tuesday — though he’s been leaning away from the “Super Tuesday” branding, preferring to call the collection of southern states, including those not voting on Tuesday, the “SEC Primary.” The SEC is a college football conference with teams throughout the South, and SEC football is practically a way of life in many of these states.
So, as you watch the returns coming in on Tuesday night, remember that you’re not experiencing some grand tradition embedded in American democracy (the Constitution doesn’t even mention political parties). We’re just replaying a 30-year-old example of American regionalism.