WASHINGTON, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- Big states. Small states. Red states. Blue states. Welcome to Super Tuesday.
It is the single biggest day on the road to the Republican and Democratic party nominations and if national polling translates into state-specific races, it could put both parties' front-runners in a commanding position.
Or, in a campaign that's delivered a seemingly never-ending string of surprises, it could be just the latest unexpected outcome.
On the Republican side, a dozen states will hold nominating contests. On the Democratic side, 11 states will do so. The real prize is not the bragging rights of a win-loss record alone -- it's the convention delegates that will be awarded based on how candidates finish.
Both parties allow individual states to set their own rules for party primaries. That means each state is a little different. But virtually all of the states in play on Super Tuesday award delegates on a proportional basis, meaning it will take landslide victories to rack up all or most of any single state's delegates. (There's even one state on Super Tuesday where the election is technically meaningless because its delegates are not bound by the primary results. Call it a beauty contest in Wyoming.)
On the Republican side, there are 624 delegates at stake. State-by-state polling shows Donald Trump with commanding leads in several of them. But the biggest prize of all sees Trump playing an away game. Texas will hand out 155 delegates and it is where native son Sen. Ted Cruz badly needs a victory to keep his campaign alive. Polls have shown the two in a relatively close race, with Cruz leading in most polls by modest margins. In order to persuade campaign donors to keep writing checks, Cruz will likely have to win his home state -- and probably by a wide margin if he wants to keep his delegate count viable moving forward.
Georgia is the second-biggest prize on Super Tuesday and there, Trump holds a significant lead in polls.
If you're wondering where Sen. Marco Rubio is likeliest to notch a victory, you may have to travel to the upper Midwest in Minnesota, which is exactly what the Florida senator did and will do again on Tuesday, hoping to get on the board with his first first-place finish of the campaign so far. He has also been tapped as the favorite to win in Virginia, according to fivethirtyeight.com, which gave Rubio a 43 percent chance to win Virginia, his best-looking state of the 12.
It is possible that Trump's lead in national polls, which a CNN/ORC poll released Monday put at a whopping 49 percent, could translate to a sweep of all 12 Super Tuesday states. But national polls are frequently not representative of an individual state's electorate. A better method is looking at state-by-state polls. However, many of the states where contests are being held have not been polled often, or in some cases, at all. Meaning the possibility for a few surprises -- which would be anything but a Trump sweep, if you read the national surveys -- is quite real. It is entirely possible that one of the lesser-polling candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich could be doing much better in some contests.
Kasich and the other bottom-feeder in national polls, Dr. Ben Carson, may be shut out of many of the other Super Tuesday delegates entirely. Virtually all states apply a minimum vote threshold of 15 percent or 20 percent of the overall vote before a candidate can win any delegates. With Kasich and Carson polling in the single digits nationally, they will have to significantly outperform expectations to get on the board at all.
While five Republicans vie for the biggest slice of the pie, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders are in a two-way, zero sum delegate race. Every delegate they win is taken directly from the other, making the breakdown crucial to who comes out ahead. The overwhelmingly Southern Super Tuesday map benefits Clinton in some ways, but not necessarily in others.
She is poised to rack up a lot of victories Tuesday -- likely more than Sanders. But Democrats award delegates in even more convoluted ways than Republicans, meaning the headlines of a Super Tuesday romp might still not be enough to vanquish the Sanders campaign.
In many states, Democrats award delegates based partly on the winner, partly on how much they win by -- and also by where they win. Democrats also award delegates based on the winner of individual congressional districts in many states. Given that Super Tuesday is playing out on what will likely be red states in the general election, this could be good news for Sanders.
Congressional districts in many Republican-controlled states have often been redrawn to confine significant numbers of traditional Democratic voters, particularly minority voters, to as few districts as possible. Clinton has outperformed Sanders among black voters thus far, and hopes to do so again Tuesday. But, due to the congressional district lines, many of her votes could come from a relatively small portion of each state. If Sanders can continue to outperform Clinton among more liberal white voters, he could blunt her overall advantage in the delegate count and begin to level what is, right now, a serious uphill climb to victory.