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Looking back at the origins of Super Tuesday

Why has Super Tuesday come to play such a critical role in the presidential nomination process? William Brangham takes a look back at the origin of Super Tuesday and how it evolved into the make-or-break contest it is today.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And now a bit of a history lesson.

    William Brangham reports on how Super Tuesday has come to play a critical role in the presidential nomination process and why it can make or break candidates.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    You know what day it is.

    HILLARY CLINTON (D), Democratic Presidential Candidate: Hello, Virginia.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: I love you. I love Georgia.

    SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-D), Democratic Presidential Candidate: Minnesota can make history.

    SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Republican Presidential Candidate: God bless the great state of Texas.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Super Tuesday, the single biggest voting day in the 2016 presidential primary contest. But what makes it so super?

    Well, it's been known to effectively seal the deal or signal the end for candidates vying for their party's nomination.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The primary voting day political pundits have been talking about for months finally arrived today.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    The first modern-day Super Tuesday happened in 1988, when a whopping 20 states, mostly in the South, held primaries on March 8 of that year. The idea was inspired by a group of moderate Southern Democratic governors who were frustrated by what they felt was their lack of influence in national elections.

    Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

    LARRY SABATO, University of Virginia: They wanted to try to moderate the Democratic Party, to move it more to the center, so it could win a national election. And that was the origin of Super Tuesday, to put the Southern states in the early part of the calendar, so that, ideally, in their view, a more moderate candidate would receive a big boost from that particular day's voting.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But the plan backfired. The Southern governors hung their hopes on then Tennessee Senator Al Gore, but he split votes with Jesse Jackson, which led then Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to first-place finishes in Texas and Florida, and Dukakis went on to become the nominee.

  • LARRY SABATO:

    The unintended consequences of reform. Their plan didn't work, pure and simple. I think they were surprised that Gore didn't do better than he did, and they weren't too keen on Michael Dukakis either, who was boosted at least as much by Super Tuesday as any other candidate.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Since then, Super Tuesday and the momentum that comes with it has been a good predictor of eventual party nominees.

    BOB DOLE (R), Republican Presidential Nominee: I think the only Tuesday that's going to be more super than this Tuesday will be Tuesday, November 5. That's going to be super.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    In 1996, then-Republican Senator Bob Dole swept the field and forced his then-rival, businessman Steve Forbes, to withdraw two days after their Super Tuesday matchup. And, in 2000, then-Vice President Gore did the same. With 81 percent of Democratic delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, he effectively locked up the nomination.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Gore's victory was a sweet one. The former Tennessee senator swept all 11 primary states and five contested party caucuses.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    And then 2008, the Super Duper Tuesday, when more than 20 states voted. But the results only predicted the nomination for one side.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pretty much in the same position they were when Super Tuesday began.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Then-Senator Barack Obama narrowly edged out then-Senator Hillary Clinton on the all-important delegate count, but not enough to clinch the nomination.

    That same day, Senator John McCain emerged as the clear front-runner for the Republicans.

  • JOHN MCCAIN, Republican Presidential Nominee:

    We're going to win today, and we're going to win the nomination, and we're going to win the presidency.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    On this Super Tuesday, 10 states have both Republican and Democratic primaries or caucuses with delegates at stake. And, yes, they're mostly in the South.

    Republicans also have a caucus in Alaska, while Democrats will also caucus in Colorado and American Samoa.

  • LARRY SABATO:

    This is one of the most important days on the calendar. It has come at a moment when both parties are poised to move in a certain direction.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has widened her delegate lead over Senator Bernie Sanders with her dominating win in South Carolina last weekend. And Donald Trump boasts a double-digit margin over the rest of the GOP field.

  • LARRY SABATO:

    It certainly will be a milestone along the way toward a Trump nomination or, alternately, toward having one of the other candidates, possibly Marco Rubio, begin to suggest that he can catch up to Trump or at least force a contested convention.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    A contested convention? Remember, Super Tuesday was designed to prevent just that. While that may be working for the Democrats, for the Republicans, this Super Tuesday may do just the opposite.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

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