By MARSHA MERCER
When Southern Democrats dreamed up Super Tuesday in the 1980s, they hoped to reinvigorate the party in the South by giving it clout in choosing the party’s presidential nominee.
Or as then-Tennessee Democratic Chairman Dick Lodge memorably put it in 1986: “When your dog bites you four or five times, it’s time to get a new dog. We’ve been bitten and it’s time for the South to get a new dog.”
Two years earlier, conservative Southerners, long fed up with Democrats’ presidential picks, not only rejected Walter Mondale and helped re-elect Ronald Reagan but also voted for Republicans for Congress.
Even the new dog couldn’t bring those voters back. They’ve been voting Republican ever since.
Today officials in both parties worry about the down-ballot consequences if insurgents Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders actually become their parties’ nominees.
Both parties are pinning their hopes on Super Tuesday, March 1, when more delegates will be chosen than on any other day during the primary season. Voters in a dozen states -- including Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia -- will cast ballots.
Big question: Will Super Tuesday help choose a widely acceptable nominee – or prolong the agony for the party establishment?
In 2008, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama kept fighting after Super Tuesday’s 22 contests were inconclusive.
Today though, Clinton holds a commanding lead over Sanders in polls in Virginia and other Super Tuesday Southern states, where black voters dominate.
Among Republicans, Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa GOP caucuses, says Super Tuesday will be “the most important night of this campaign.” Rivals Marco Rubio and John Kasich also hope to break out and put the brakes on Trump.
Trump Fever, however, seems to be spreading. The billionaire businessman’s margin of victory widened from New Hampshire to South Carolina to Nevada. In Nevada, Trump won 46 percent of the vote, about the same as Rubio and Cruz combined. Kasich and Ben Carson together didn’t reach 10 percent.
Super Tuesday was also more snooze than shock in 2012. President Barack Obama was running unopposed for re-election in most states, so all the action was on the Republican side.
Mitt Romney hoped to sweep Super Tuesday states and force his rivals from the GOP race. Romney captured 40 percent of the popular vote and about half the delegates – a performance seen as underwhelming and predictable, much like the candidate himself.
Georgia went for Newt Gingrich and Alabama and Tennessee supported Rick Santorum, who also won North Dakota and Oklahoma and came within a whisker of beating Romney in Ohio. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum was able to qualify for the ballot in Virginia, where Romney won.
“With No Knockout Punch, a Bruising Battle Plods On,” read a headline in The New York Times the day after Super Tuesday.
This time around, Trump -- endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late televangelist – has surprised the establishment by winning support from white evangelical voters, who dominate the Southern GOP.
In Alabama and Tennessee, for example, more than 70 percent of GOP primary voters are white evangelical Christians, an analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics found.
In Tennessee, record numbers of Republican voters have turned out for early primary voting, which could bode well for Trump, although that’s uncertain as there have been no recent polls. Cruz and Rubio are also courting evangelicals.
In Virginia, while about 40 percent of the Republican primary vote is evangelical, 58 percent of voters are college educated, says UVa’s Skelley who suggests Northern Virginia voters could blunt Trump, and Rubio could benefit. Trump led in a Christopher Newport University poll of likely Republican primary voters in Virginia in mid-February.
The richest delegate states on Super Tuesday are Texas and Georgia, where Trump is strong. He and Cruz were neck and neck in the latest polls, released Thursday, while earlier Cruz had led handily in his home state. Trump leads by double digits in Georgia and Alabama, according to the polls.
Trump appears to have momentum, and the South is poised to solidify him as the GOP frontrunner. How ironic if Super Tuesday, which was intended to give Southern conservatives a moderating influence on presidential choices, made Trump unstoppable.
If that happens, the parties may want to get a new dog.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.