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Super Tuesday: What you need to know

Last Updated Mar 1, 2016 4:45 PM EST

What is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday is the biggest day of the 2016 primary season, with 13 states and one territory participating: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming and American Samoa.

When is Super Tuesday?

Super Tuesday is March 1. Polls close in most states at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. ET, though results will still be coming in the next day -- Republican caucusing in Alaska will continue until midnight ET. Here are the closing times for individual states:

7 p.m. ET: Georgia, Vermont, Virginia

8 p.m. ET: Alabama, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee

8:30 p.m. ET: Arkansas

9 p.m. ET: Texas; Colorado and Minnesota caucuses begin

12 a.m. ET: Alaska caucuses; Wyoming caucuses*

What's the SEC primary? How does it relate to Super Tuesday?

The so-called SEC primary refers to the Super Tuesday states that are in the South: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Its name refers to the Southeastern Conference (SEC), a college athletic conference.

The inclusion of so many Southern states on Super Tuesday has changed the dynamics of the GOP and Democratic primaries this election cycle. Sen. Ted Cruz, who's aiming to win the support of conservatives and evangelicals, has called the SEC primary his "firewall." On Wednesday, Cruz called his home state of Texas the "crown jewel" of Super Tuesday. Before former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race, the super PAC Right to Rise planned to spend nearly $17 million on advertising in the SEC primary states to support him there.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could accumulate a high number of delegates in the Southern states, thanks to her strong support among African Americans.

How does Super Tuesday work?

Each state handles the voting process differently: some are primaries, which are run by the states; others are caucuses, which are typically put on by the state parties.

Which states participate in Super Tuesday?

Both Republicans and Democrats are holding their respective primaries on Super Tuesday in these states : Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.

Republicans and Democrats are holding caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. Additionally, Republicans are holding caucuses in Alaska and Wyoming, while Democrats hold their caucuses in American Samoa.

How are Super Tuesday delegates awarded?

Super Tuesday could be a pivotal day for frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, depending on the number of delegates they secure. The Republicans on Super Tuesday have an opportunity to win about half of the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the nomination. On the Democratic side, Clinton and Sanders will be battling over more than 800 delegates--about a third of the delegates necessary to win the nomination.

That makes the contests that have been held so far look rather insignificant: During the contests in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Nevada, approximately 2 percent of pledged Democratic delegates and 5 percent of GOP delegates were awarded to candidates. The delegates awarded on Super Tuesday represent nearly a quarter of total Democratic delegates and just under a third of Republican delegates.

The Republican National Committee decided back in 2014 that all states holding their nominating contests before March 15 must award their delegates to the candidates proportionally, rather than on a winner-take-all basis. This means that, in most states, they'll either be awarded based on the overall statewide vote or based on who wins in each congressional district. Democrats award all of their delegates (aside from superdelegates) proportionally.

Which candidates are participating?

On the Republican side, the five remaining candidates participating in Super Tuesday are businessman Donald Trump, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.

On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face off against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

What do the polls say about Super Tuesday?

While the polling varies by state, Trump and Clinton both look to be leading in a number of states across the map. For Republicans, Trump looks to be leading in Virginia, Georgia, Oklahoma and Vermont, among others. As for Texas, Cruz leads in some polls while Trump leads in others, so it could be a very close race.

On the Democratic side, Clinton leads in most states that will vote on Super Tuesday: she is up by double digits in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama, according to recent polling. Sanders leads big in his home state of Vermont; he's close or slightly ahead of Clinton in Massachusetts and Oklahoma.

What does this mean for the candidates?

A strong Super Tuesday performance--especially in Texas--is absolutely critical for Ted Cruz, who has founded his campaign on the support of conservatives and evangelicals. If Cruz can't win in Texas, it will cast serious doubt on his viability. The senator has endorsements from several other Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, former Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Cruz also has an army of about 27,000 volunteers in the state.

John Kasich's campaign has opened offices in some Super Tuesday states, such as Georgia, Virginia and Mississippi, with the primary goal of simply enduring March 1 to make it through to the Michigan primary on March 8. "We're planting a big flag in Michigan," Kasich said at a February 19 town hall. In the meantime, his campaign is trying to build up high-pressure expectations for Rubio: "Failure by Senator Rubio to exit the SEC primary without a big delegate lead will spell the effective end of Senator Rubio's campaign," his campaign wrote in a memo this week.

On the Democratic side, Super Tuesday could be the day where Clinton is able to cement a large delegate lead over Sanders. Because of her strong support among superdelegates, she's currently far ahead--but if she wins most of the states that vote on Super Tuesday, she could increase that lead to a point where it would be difficult for Sanders to catch up. If Sanders is able to pull a stronger-than-expected showing, however, that would be a sign the Democratic primary could continue throughout the spring.

Are there any advantages for the candidates?

Once the race moves beyond the first four traditional early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), the race becomes much more nationalized: when a candidate can't be on the ground in each state to put in significant face time, voters are more likely to base their opinions on what they're seeing in the headlines and on the airwaves.

A round of major primaries taking place all at once should work to the benefit of a candidate like Trump, who knows how to win over crowds at big, boisterous rallies. His preference for large-scale campaign events will make it easier for him to reach as many Super Tuesday voters as possible.

Clinton, too, has the advantage as the race enters this phase: unlike Sanders, who has acknowledged he is still introducing himself to voters, Clinton has near-universal name ID across the country. She's also on the air with ads in far more states than Sanders is.

What's the biggest prize?

Texas is by far the biggest delegate prize on the map, with 155 Republican delegates and 252 total Democratic delegates at stake. That's why candidates on both sides have spent time there and invested significant resources into the state.

But there are a handful of other states with significant delegate totals that candidates are targeting as well: think Alabama (50 Republican delegates; 60 Democratic delegates), Georgia (76 Republican delegates; 116 Democratic delegates), Tennessee (58 Republican delegates; 76 Democratic delegates) and Virginia (49 Republican delegates; 110 Democratic delegates).

What's next (for the candidates and election 2016)?

For the candidates, Super Tuesday could be a day that makes or breaks campaigns--and if one candidate has a particularly poor showing, there's a chance the field could narrow in the days that follow.

After Super Tuesday, the race spreads out across the map to a handful of states at a time. Several others vote this Saturday: Kansas and Louisiana have contests for both parties, Kentucky and Maine hold Republican caucuses, and Nebraska holds its Democratic caucuses. Michigan and Mississippi hold primaries and Hawaii and Idaho caucus on March 8. The next big primaries political observers will be keeping a close eye on are Florida and Ohio on March 15, where Marco Rubio and John Kasich could struggle to win their respective home states.

*Wyoming's Republican caucuses are held at different times based on each county/precinct, but all will be completed by the end of the day on Super Tuesday.

What issues are voters talking about?

According to Facebook, the discussion in Super Tuesday states has been centered on these 10 issues from midnight to noon ET:

  1. Racism & Discrimination
  2. Christianity
  3. Guns
  4. Immigration
  5. Benghazi
  6. Education
  7. Islam and Muslims
  8. #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain (a reference to comedian John Oliver's takedown of Trump)
  9. Crime & Criminal Justice
  10. Jobs