After what has seemed like endless wall-to-wall coverage of the US primary election, it's easy to forget that only four states have actually voted so far and that a small fraction of delegates have actually been awarded to candidates. But that's all about to change today — Super Tuesday, the most important day of the 2016 election thus far. By the time the polls close this evening, there will be a much clearer picture of who the Democratic and Republican nominees will be.
What's at stake
Super Tuesday is important because tonight the single biggest chunk of delegates will be awarded to the candidates in this election cycle. Twelve states (plus American Samoa) are holding their presidential primary contests and nearly 1,500 delegates are up for grabs. Just under half of the 1,237 Republican delegates necessary to win the party's nomination and a third of the 2,383 Democratic delegates needed to win are at stake today.
Clinton currently leads Sanders with 90 delegates to Sanders' 65. (Her lead when it comes to superdelegates, a quirk of the Democratic nominating process, is much larger, but that's not yet worth taking into consideration). Trump leads the Republican field with 82 delegates, followed by Cruz who has 17, and Rubio with 16. John Kasich and Ben Carson have six and four delegates, respectively. Those numbers will grow significantly today — at least for some of the candidates.
Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia are holding Democratic and Republican primaries. Republicans in Alaska and Democrats in Colorado are holding caucuses as well.
The biggest chunks of delegates up for grabs are concentrated in southern states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas — which is why Super Tuesday is sometimes referred to as the "SEC primary" after the collegiate athletic conference with member schools in those states.
How it works
All of the states that vote today divide their delegates between the candidates, usually on a proportional basis depending on what percentage of votes each candidate receives. Winner-take-all states, where the candidate who wins a simple majority sweeps all of the state's delegates, don't start voting until March 15. Some states have a minimum threshold of votes that the candidate must receive in order to win any delegates. In Alabama, for instance, a candidate must win a minimum of 20 percent of the vote in order to win any of the state's 50 delegates.
What to expect
For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton is favored to win big. She is expected to do especially well in the swath of southern states because they are home to a large population of black voters, who overwhelmingly favor her. It helps Clinton that she is coming off a landslide victory in South Carolina's primary last Saturday, where she trounced Bernie Sanders, winning 86 percent of black voters.
But there are still a couple of states where Sanders is hoping to give Clinton a run for her money. The biggest battleground is Massachusetts, where 91 Democratic delegates are up for grabs and Clinton and Sanders are currently neck and neck. Sanders has invested heavily in the liberal enclave, which neighbors his home state of Vermont, spending $1.35 million in television and radio advertisements there; Clinton has only spent $547,000. Sanders is also focusing on Oklahoma and Minnesota, the other two majority-white states where the race is tight.
On the Republican side, all eyes are on Texas. The state awards the biggest number of delegates today — 155 total — and is also Ted Cruz's home state. If Cruz fails to win big there, it will deal a serious blow to his campaign from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Cruz's entire campaign strategy has been to win among social conservatives and evangelicals across the south, but that strategy hinges on a big win in Texas. Cruz is currently leading Donald Trump by 10 points in the Lone Star State, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics polling average, although that gap has shrunk considerably in recent weeks, and Trump is working hard to close it entirely.
Other than Texas, Trump is leading in all of the Super Tuesday states and is overwhelmingly favored to win the majority of delegates today. According to the most recent CNN/ORN poll released last night, Trump leads the Republican field nationally by 49 percent — the highest lead recorded so far in the primary election.
After today, the rest of the primary states will hold their contests in smaller clusters, and the delegates will slowly trickle to each candidate. The next big date is March 15, when the two biggest winner-take-all states of Florida and Ohio vote. Once those results are known, the nominees are likely to be locked in.
Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928