WTF Happened on Super Tuesday, Explained

Trump and Clinton both won big — but not big enough to make anyone else in the race quit

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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump won big on Super Tuesday, though Trump's wins may not have been quite as "yuge" as he'd hoped.

Any candidate who can take primary elections in both Massachusetts and Alabama — the yin and the yang of American political life — is probably a lock for their party's nomination.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton scored that rare feat on Super Tuesday, storming to big delegate victories.

The day nonetheless gave each of the major candidates important victories to crow about: Ted Cruz won Texas. Marco Rubio took Minnesota. Sanders scored Colorado. Super Tuesday turned out to be a wild ride.

Here's everything you need to know.

Back up a second. Why do we have "Super Tuesday," again?
Both parties have structured their nominating calendars to stage a pivotal multi-state contest in early March — seeking to amplify the momentum of candidates who do well in the four early-voting states.

Here's the logic: A contested primary season can leave candidates battered and cash-poor heading into the general election. In theory, the parties want Super Tuesday to vault an early frontrunner into the status of presumptive nominee — leaving plenty of time for that candidate to retool financing and messaging for the general election.

The Democratic race is working as intended: Clinton is now beginning to separate from Sanders. But the Super Tuesday formula is backfiring on the establishment GOP, big time: The vulgar, race-baiting Trump has jumped out to a commanding delegate lead, and the poobahs of the Grand Old Party have little recourse.

Which states voted?
Super Tuesday is sometimes called the SEC primary because it mirrors many of the states from the Deep South's top athletic conference. Below the Mason-Dixon line, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia all voted Tuesday. The day's northern contests included Alaska, Massachusetts and Vermont.

With so many blood-red states voting, Super Tuesday is a solid reflection of the will of the Republican base. On the flip side, the contest gives the South an outsize role in selecting the Democratic nominee. The Democrats attempt to correct for this, slightly, by postponing Alaska and including the swing state of Colorado.

What was at stake?
Bragging rights and claims to momentum, of course. But the important figure is the delegate jackpot. Across Super Tuesday, Republicans had 661 delegates up for grabs — more than half of the 1,237 majority needed to lock up the nomination. For Democrats, 865 delegates were at stake — more than a third of the necessary 2,382.

THE REPUBLICANS

Donald Trump won big — again?
He did, but not quite as yuge has he might have hoped. The billionaire frontrunner took seven of the 11 Republican contests, sweeping the Northeast and the Deep South, but losing Texas to home-state senator Ted Cruz, who also took neighboring Oklahoma, and scored a late victory in Alaska. Trump also ceded Minnesota to Marco Rubio, who scored his first actual victory of 2016.

At a proto-presidential press conference in Florida — flanked by American flags and a brooding New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (who looked like he'd rather be passing kidney stones than campaigning for Trump) — the Donald struck a low-key, general-election tone calling himself a "common-sense conservative."

Trump flashed his messaging against Clinton — painting her as an obstacle to American renewal. "She's been there so long," he said, "making it worse and worse." Trump added confidently that taking on Clinton would make for "an easy race."

Testing out his chops as the presumptive nominee, Trump highlighted his role in driving record turnout — "We have expanded the Republican Party," he said — and promised to mend fences in the GOP, insisting, "I am a unifier."

But if Trump graciously congratulated Cruz on his Texas victory, he also renewed his bloodsport with Rubio, slamming the Florida senator as "a lightweight" plaything of his billionaire donors, saying that "if he wins, they'll have total control."

Underscoring his incorrigibly divisive tendencies, Trump even took a shot at Paul Ryan — literally the one unifying figure of the national GOP — who had called out Trump for his flirtation with the KKK.

If Ryan doesn't play nice with President Trump, the Donald menaced, "he will pay a big price."

Ted Cruz
Ted Cruz at his victory rally in Stafford, Texas, Tuesday. Lucian Perkins/Getty

Ted Cruz won Texas. Does that mean he's back in the race?
Cruz's campaign had appeared to stall out after a poor showing in South Carolina. But he extended his lease on 2016 political life by taking Texas — his home state and the richest delegate prize of the night — scoring a spillover victory in Oklahoma, and also narrowly winning Alaska. Cruz's Texas win was keyed by his support among "very conservative" voters, whom he won by a margin of 56-23 over second-place Trump.

If Cruz had been laying low during the recent firefights between Trump and Rubio, he came out guns blazing on Tuesday night, blasting Trump as "profane and vulgar" and calling him "a Washington deal-maker... who has a lifelong pattern of using government power for personal gain."

Painting himself as the one man who can stop Trump, Cruz called on the rest of the still-crowded field to drop out and to "prayerfully consider our coming together, united" behind his candidacy.

Marco Rubio is never going to endorse Cruz, is he?
Not likely. In fact, shortly after Cruz insisted his was the "only campaign that has beaten, that can beat, and that will beat Donald Trump," Super Tuesday delivered its first real surprise: Rubio scored an upset win in Minnesota. (Minnesota was a caucus state and no entrance polls were available; we don't know why Rubio won, just that he beat Trump by 16 points.)

Rubio came close to knocking off Trump in a second, much juicier contest: Virginia. Ironically, in a year defined by revulsion against inside-the-Beltway politics, the districts physically inside the Beltway gave Rubio his best returns of 2016, bar none.

Rubio's big night was problematic, however. He may have finally chalked up a state in the victory column, but he suffered painful delegate losses elsewhere. Super Tuesday GOP nominating contests are winner-take-most. Candidates who fail to reach a certain threshold — most often 20 percent support — receive no slice of the delegate pie. Rubio narrowly missed the 20 percent threshold in Texas, Alabama and Vermont, costing him dozens of delegates.

What does it all mean?
Donald Trump remains on a glide path to the GOP nomination.

His field of competitors remains recklessly divided. Cruz put up a decent fight on Super Tuesday, winning more than 200 delegates; he's in it to win it, but the map going forward doesn't favor him.

Rubio has consolidated the backing of the GOP establishment and is preparing for the fight of his political life in his home state of Florida — a winner-take-all contest — on March 15. A win would mean a huge stash of delegates and serious momentum. But recent polls show Tump leading by a wide margin.

There's another opponent in the wings, plotting his move: Gov. John Kasich narrowly missed winning Vermont on Super Tuesday, he has a chance for a strong showing in Michigan on March 8, and he will be swinging for the fences in his home state, winner-take-all Ohio, on March 15.

Trump could easily win Florida or Ohio — or both, in which case he's all but won the nomination. Best case for the GOP political class? The combination of Cruz, Rubio and Kasich somehow deny Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination, leading to a brokered convention — and chaos.

But that's unlikely. As former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe tweeted, "A reminder — unlike in boxing, there are no late round knockouts in the sport of delegate acquisition. Fall behind too much, it's over."

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton at her Super Tuesday election night rally in Miami. Gerald Herbert/AP

THE DEMOCRATS

Hillary Clinton is still on a roll?
Clinton won big Tuesday night. She swept Texas and the Deep South and — following a late campaigning burst — even won in Massachusetts. She's opening up the kind of lead that will be very challenging to overcome.

Once the delegate accounting from Tuesday is finalized, campaign spokesman, Brian Fallon writes, "Clinton's pledged-delegate lead over Sanders will likely surpass Obama's largest-ever lead in '08."

Clinton's victory in Massachusetts — Sanders' backyard, and the state that put progressive darling Elizabeth Warren in the Senate — was keyed by her performance among wealthier voters, according to the exit poll. Voters making less than $100,000 a year favored Sanders 54-45. But voters making more than $100,000 swung hard for Clinton, 60-39.

Across the South, as in South Carolina, African Americans keyed wins for Clinton. Examining the numbers, it's clear that a "firewall" is simply the wrong metaphor to describe this support; the black vote created a tidal wave in Clinton's favor. She won at least 80 percent of African American voters in Texas, Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. She took 90 percent in Arkansas, and won the black vote in Alabama 92-6.

Clinton's most important victory came in the swing state of Virginia, where she trounced Sanders by nearly 30 points. Looking to the general election, Clinton appears to be cobbling the Obama coalition back together. Her strength among black voters in particular could re-create and expand the battleground in states like Virginia and North Carolina.

"What a super Tuesday!" Clinton declared in a victory speech in which she previewed how she plans to take the fight to Trump. "America never stopped being great," Clinton said. "We have to make America whole; we have to fill in what's been hollowed out."

Is it over for Bernie Sanders?
Not yet. Sanders survived Super Tuesday with his long-shot campaign intact. The Southern tilt to the contests was always going to be problematic for the Vermont senator. On Monday, Jane Sanders, the candidate's wife, called it, simply, a "rough map."

Sanders didn't let himself get completely blown out. He defended his home state of Vermont, took the liberal stronghold of Minnesota, and scored a strong victory in the crucial swing state of Colorado. Sanders even pulled out an improbable win in Oklahoma — where he ran strong among self-described conservatives (54-24), independents (69-21) and first-time Democratic primary voters (73-16).

But in a poignant speech before a home crowd in Vermont, Sanders seemed to focus more on unifying the party against Trump than on tearing down Clinton, insisting he wanted to "bring our people together" and not "allow the Donald Trumps of the world to divide us."

Sanders' climb to the nomination is now very steep. But he declared he's committed to give himself a shot if Clinton should stumble. There are still 35 contests remaining, and Sanders vowed without hesitation, "We are going to take our fight... to every one of those states."

What does it all mean?
Barring a late shakeup, the presidential contest is growing clearer. Plouffe bills it like a prize fight: "Trump vs Clinton. November 8, 2016."

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