After a month of preliminary skirmishes, the 2016 presidential primaries have finally reached states with nontrivial numbers of people in them. Texas was by far the biggest state participating in Super Tuesday, but a number of midsize states — Georgia, Massachusetts, Virginia, Tennessee — all larger than any of the four states that have already voted, were also in the mix.
The huge number of delegates up for grabs meant the contests had the potential to give frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prohibitively large leads: not enough to win outright, but enough to make any other candidate winning outright unlikely, if not impossible. But they also had the potential to give challengers a leg up and, in the Republican race, potentially fracture the delegates sufficiently to render the prospect of any candidate winning before the convention implausible.
When the dust settled, here's who ended Super Tuesday closer to victory, and who stumbled.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Of course, the easiest way to win Super Tuesday is to win Super Tuesday. And Clinton definitely beat Bernie Sanders.
While she didn't get a clean sweep — Sanders naturally won his home state of Vermont, as well as Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Colorado — she won Virginia and Georgia by landslide margins, with each called immediately after the polls closed at 7 pm. Then Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas. Then Arkansas. Then Massachusetts.
Some of these are places where she was all but guaranteed to win. She was first lady of Arkansas for 12 years; it'd be bizarre if she lost there. And Bernie's win in Oklahoma was impressive. That was a genuinely competitive contest that either candidate could win, and Sanders won it.
But at the end of the night, Clinton had won seven out of 11 states, including Sanders's neighboring state of Massachusetts. Even with the Sanders campaign performing about as well as could be expected, it wasn't enough to keep him realistically in contention. It wasn't shocking, especially after South Carolina, that Clinton easily won Southern states where black voters dominate Southern primaries. But even if she didn't beat expectations, she underlined an inconvenient fact for Sanders: You just can't win a Democratic primary without black support.
And Clinton did better than just winning. She won by huge, landslide margins. The fact that Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia were all called so fast was indicative of just how thoroughly she demolished Sanders. And given that Democrats have a proportional delegate allocation system, the scale of Clinton's victories matters and helps her run up the score.
She also generally won in bigger states. Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota, and Vermont have a combined 158 delegates. The Southern states Clinton swept have 571. Add in the fact that she will win a higher fraction of the latter than Sanders will win of the former, and it's a very, very good night for her overall.
The race isn't wrapped up yet. Clinton still has a ways to go before reaching the magical 2,383-delegate threshold, even if you take superdelegates into account. But if she keeps racking up big margins with black voters and Sanders's appeal remains limited, it's hard to see how she loses.
Winner: Donald Trump
The other candidate to win Super Tuesday in the most literal of senses was Donald Trump. Many of the same states that immediately called for Clinton — Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee — did so for Trump as well, and he won Massachusetts immediately too.
He didn't sweep all 11 states, an outcome that appeared at least possible based on polling. Ted Cruz won his home state of Texas and pulled out a surprise victory in Oklahoma. Marco Rubio won Minnesota. But seven out of 11 ain't bad, especially when Texas allocates delegates proportionately and will give many to Trump. (As of this writing, the Alaska caucuses haven't come in yet, which would be Trump's eighth victory.)
And crucially, the night ended with Marco Rubio — the candidate that the Republican establishment has been desperately touting as The One, whom everyone's waiting for to fight Trump and to win and to accept treasure and to accept love — winning only one state out of 11. Fifteen states have held Republican primaries or caucuses so far, and exactly one of them has gone for Marco Rubio.
That means the field remains fractured. Cruz staying in might be good for the establishment — it seems as likely that his supporters would break toward Trump as that they'd break toward Rubio — but Kasich's continued presence only detracts from Rubio's base. And no one can reasonably demand Kasich get out. Unlike Rubio, he actually has a shot at winning his home state. Why shouldn't Rubio drop out and let Kasich become the anti-Trump?
And ultimately, maybe the fracturing doesn't even matter. In a number of states, combining the entire non-Trump, non-Cruz vote doesn't get you over Trump's position. In Georgia, Rubio, Carson, and Kasich combined to about 35 percent. Trump got about 40. In Massachusetts, Kasich, Rubio, and Carson combined to about 39 percent; Trump got about 48. And that's including Carson, whose supporters might break toward Trump or Cruz in any case.
There just isn't a big enough establishment lane for Rubio to win a three-man race with Trump and Cruz. And if Cruz were to drop out for some reason, Rubio's woes would only get worse.
I suppose it's possible that Trump could still lose. But the odds of that happening in the primary, rather than by having the nomination stolen from him at the convention, are shrinking by the day.
Winner: Ted Cruz
How you view Ted Cruz's performance tonight depends entirely on where you set expectations. On the one hand, the South should've been his base. The fact that Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia not only went for Trump but went for him immediately is hardly encouraging for Cruz; it's not like he can expect to perform a ton better in Ohio than in Alabama.
But he was also the only non-Trump Republican to win actual primaries, and even though Texas is his home state, his double-digit win there gives him a big fraction of the biggest delegate prize of the night.
At this point, it's getting harder and harder for Marco Rubio to credibly claim to be the main alternative to Trump. To be a plausible nomination contender, eventually you have to win multiple primaries. And Cruz is the only non-Trump candidate who's shown an ability to do that consistently, even with Rubio's win in Minnesota.
Cruz's path ahead isn't especially favorable. The only upcoming state where he has a decent shot of winning is Louisiana this Saturday, which hasn't been polled in months but which neighbors Texas and could potentially be receptive to Cruz's message. He's way behind in Kentucky (also Saturday) and in Michigan (next Tuesday), and in third in Ohio and Florida (on March 15).
So Cruz still isn't the favorite to win. But as the race narrows, his Super Tuesday performance increased the odds of the GOP race coming down to him and Trump. And that's the scenario where Cruz's odds hit their absolute peak.
Loser: Bernie Sanders
Super Tuesday could have gone a lot worse for Bernie. He could've lost Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Colorado, leading to a humiliating finish in which he only won his home state. Those three were genuinely impressive victories.
But winning the odd small state is not enough to win a nomination, and it's certainly not a sign of a national revolution in which millions of nonvoters are turning out for Bernie. Nor is his inability to win Massachusetts, a midsize state with lots of white liberals that borders Vermont.
The only time a campaign based on support from well-educated liberals, like Sanders's, has ultimately succeeded in the Democratic primaries was in 2008, when Barack Obama coupled with the liberal vote with the black vote.
And Super Tuesday was yet another reminder that Sanders hasn't made meaningful inroads with black voters. His landslide defeats in Alabama, Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee, all showed that very clearly. And for that matter, so did his victories in states with notably small black populations.
Ultimately, Clinton's big margins in the South — and their bigger delegate weight than Oklahoma, Colorado, Minnesota, and Vermont — gave her a large lead in pledged delegates, far bigger than she had from just South Carolina and Nevada.
It's still possible for Sanders to turn this around, and he had a respectable enough performance that it makes sense for him to stay in the race for a few more weeks. But he needs to do substantially better than this to have a shot of catching Clinton, and given that his best method for building momentum is actually winning primaries, it's getting harder and harder to imagine how a shift in the race that dramatic could happen.
Loser: Marco Rubio
Despite an innovative new strategy of vague insinuations that Donald Trump has a small dick, Rubio finished Super Tuesday winning only one state: Minnesota. He couldn't even win Virginia, where he led in the northern inside-the-Beltway counties and came closest to catching Trump. Even worse, he often got third, such as in Texas and Oklahoma, where Ted Cruz won. And in Texas he appears likely to miss the threshold for getting delegates, which could cost him more delegates than winning Minnesota gained him.
Rubio's strategy to date has been to assume that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are unacceptable to establishment Republicans and slowly get them to unify around him. Well, that's happening. John Kasich is still fracturing the establishment vote a bit, but Rubio has much more national elite support. And yet in a number of states, Rubio plus Kasich was not enough to beat Trump. There just aren't enough people interested in an establishment candidate for even one with unified support to thrive.
By contrast, there does seem to be room in the race for two separate outsider candidates. Trump and Cruz are the only two Republicans to have won primaries, and with three victories under his belt, Cruz has a far better claim to the mantle of anti-Trump, and far more reason to ask his fellow non-Trump contenders to step aside.
And yet Rubio appears completely delusional about the fact that he's losing, insisting in a speech, "Five days ago, we began to explain to the American people that Donald Trump is a con artist. And in just five days, we have seen the impact it is having all across the country. We are seeing, in state after state, his numbers coming down. Our numbers going up." Somehow, a night in which Trump won eight states and Rubio won one looks like a victory to Rubio:
This makes a bit more sense when you consider that Rubio's campaign apparently believes it's capable of winning the nomination without winning a single primary, according to donors briefed by campaign manager Terry Sullivan:
Not everyone who attended left the meeting thinking the campaign had a workable plan to dethrone Trump as the party's expected nominee.
"It was a presentation that defied reality," said one Rubio backer. "They said their convention strategy was not contingent on winning any states… Even if you go to the [second ballot] why would anyone say Marco Rubio is the guy to give it to?"
At this point it's hard to imagine how Rubio stays in the race after March 15, where he's set to lose his home state of Florida to Trump by 20 points. That could narrow in the meantime, but even if Trump wins by a small margin, Florida is a winner-take-all state, so Rubio would walk away with nothing.
The Republican establishment might have a small fraction of a chance if Rubio loses Florida, drops out, and endorses Kasich (provided Kasich wins his home state of Ohio). A Kasich nomination would still be unlikely, but it'd be at least conceivable. A Rubio nomination, at this point, just isn't.