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First Read: Four Super Tuesday Storylines to Watch

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

Super Tuesday’s Four Storylines

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s … Super Tuesday, when a total of 12 states -- 11 on the Democratic side, 11 on the GOP side -- today hold their presidential nominating contests, representing the biggest batch of delegates up for grabs in a single day in the 2016 race. And there are four storylines we’ll be watching when the polls close tonight:

1) Does Donald Trump run the table outside of Texas? If he accomplishes this feat, as the polls suggest, he’ll be set up to put away the GOP race in two weeks, when Florida and Ohio hold their winner-take-all contests. A great night for Trump is if he finds his total delegate lead (for the entire GOP race) to be north of 200 over his closest competitor. A not-so-great night would be an overall lead of about 100 delegates. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn writes, maybe the best opportunity for a non-Trump candidate to win a state other than Texas is Rubio in Minnesota. Virginia is also a state to watch. But if Trump wins both of them, he’ll inch closer and closer to being the runaway favorite for the GOP nomination.

2) Panic time for the GOP establishment? And if Trump is getting closer and closer to being a sure bet, the other story to watch tonight, tomorrow, and throughout the weekend is the panic among establishment Republicans. Already, per NBC’s Frank Thorp, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is warning that Republicans who are up for re-election might have to distance themselves from Trump. (Indeed, just look at the TV ad that’s airing against John McCain in Arizona.) NBC’s Andrea Mitchell sums up the GOP establishment’s dilemma pretty well: Some think he’ll lose in November, while others think he could win but wouldn’t be a conservative president. And then there’s possibility of a third-party run. But is there enough time and ballot access to make this idea anything other than a pipe dream?

3) Who finishes third in Super Tuesday delegates on the Republican side -- Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio? Whoever does will have the worst night on the GOP side. Third place for Cruz would be devastating, especially considering that his home state of Texas is awarding the most delegates tonight. Third place for Rubio wouldn’t end his campaign, since he can retreat to his home state of Florida, which holds its winner-take-all primary on March 15. But third for Rubio would be a tough blow after his high-profile (and highly personal) back-and-forths with Trump. For what it’s worth, elections expert Joe Lenski offers this projection for tonight’s GOP delegate haul: Trump 284; Cruz 160; Rubio 133; Kasich 15; Carson 3.

4) Does Hillary Clinton pull away from Bernie Sanders? That sure seems to be the safe bet, especially with Sanders focused on just five Super Tuesday states (Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Vermont). Those five are home to 288 of the delegates up for grabs tonight, while the other six states on the Dem side (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia) are home to 571 up-for-grabs delegates. Given that Sanders raised more than $40 million in February, it’s puzzling to us why Sanders didn’t make a bigger play in those southern states. In fact, Clinton is outspending Sanders in Super Tuesday ads. Massachusetts is an important to state to watch, with the most recent polling showing Clinton slightly ahead there. Lenski’s Democratic prediction: Clinton 512; Sanders 353.

Tonight’s final poll closing times

  • 7:00 pm ET: Georgia, Vermont, Virginia
  • 8:00 pm ET: Alabama, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee,
  • 8:30 pm ET: Arkansas
  • 9:00 pm ET: Texas, Colorado (Dem caucus), Minnesota (caucus)
  • Midnight ET: Alaska

Don’t forget that there’s already been early voting in the Super Tuesday states: Per NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell and Marianna Sotomayor, a majority of the Super Tuesday state have offered some form of early voting, which means that voters have already been casting ballots in these states.

  • Arkansas: Started Feb. 15
  • Alaska: Started Feb. 15 (no-excuse absentee and early voting)
  • Georgia: Feb. 19 – 26 no-excuse absentee voting available
  • Massachusetts: absentee ballots available
  • Oklahoma: Feb. 25 – 26
  • Tennessee: Early voting began 20 days before the election and ended five days before
  • Texas: Feb. 16-Feb. 26
  • Vermont: Early voting and no-excuse ballot available

NBC|SurveyMonkey Poll: Trump leads Rubio, Cruz in head-to-head matchups

From our newest weekly online tracking poll: “When given only two candidates to choose between, Republicans preferred Trump over Rubio by [a six] percent margin [52%-46), and they preferred Trump over Cruz by an even larger 13 percent margin [55%-42%]. These results suggest that, at present, Trump's standing would not be diminished even if the race were reduced to a two-person contest.” The overall GOP horserace in the NBC|SurveyMonkey poll (Feb. 22-28): Trump 40%, Rubio 21%, Cruz 18%, Carson 8%, Kasich 7%. The Dem race: Clinton 51%, Sanders 41%.

Clinton shifts focus from Sanders to Trump

The dispatch from NBC’s Monica Alba: “Hillary Clinton [yesterday] held four events in Super Tuesday states, two in Massachusetts and two in Virginia. At each event, she deployed her new line of attack against Trump’s trademark slogan. “I don't think America has ever stopped being great. What we need to do now is make America whole,” she said… Clinton also scaled back her attack against Sen. Sanders slightly--though she unleashed on him on guns specifically today. There wasn’t a single event in Iowa and New Hampshire where Clinton didn’t slam Sanders on a combination of guns, Wall Street, health care and college affordability. We’re starting to see that slip away now that the Clinton camp is feeling extra confident post-Nevada.” By the way, MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald and Benjy Sarlin wrote this last week: “Not long ago, Democratic operatives stifled grins and tried to conceal their enthusiasm when asked about the prospect of running against Donald Trump in November. Could they possibly be so lucky? But as Trump vanquishes his GOP challengers and climbs in the polls, defying all political gravity, the glee is turning to unease for many Democrats who worry that the general election could turn into a nasty and unpredictable house of horrors.”

Rubio backs away from the personal attacks against Trump

The dispatch from NBC’s Alex Jaffe: “[Rubio] dove into his typical stump [yesterday], but avoided attacking Trump too aggressively, as he's done all day. Indeed, someone in the crowd shouted out: "Trump has small hands!" at the top of his speech, and [Rubio] outright shut them down: "We're not talking about that today. I want this to be a serious election," he said.”

How the GOP’s truncated calendar helped Trump

Finally, don’t miss the New York Times on how the Republican Party’s calendar changes have actually HELPED Donald Trump. “Memo to Republican leaders: Be careful what you wish for. Hoping to avoid a repeat of the messy fight for the Republican nomination in 2012, the party drew up a calendar and delegate-selection rules intended to allow a front-runner to wrap things up quickly. Now, with Republicans voting in 11 states on Tuesday, the worst fears of the party’s establishment are coming true: Donald J. Trump could all but seal his path to the nomination in a case of unintended consequences for the party leadership, which vehemently opposes him.”

  • Countdown to KS, KY (GOP), LA, ME, NE (Dem) contests: 4 days
  • Countdown to ME (Dem) contest: 5 days
  • Countdown to HI (GOP), ID (GOP), MI, MS contests: 7 days
  • Countdown to FL, IL, MO, NC, OH contests: 14 days

PHOTOS - Super Tuesday: Americans Cast Votes in Critical Primary Elections