Former Vice President Joe Biden won smashing victories in Democratic presidential primaries in Florida, Illinois and Arizona on Tuesday night, further cementing his advantage over Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in a nomination race soon to be frozen in place for weeks as growing fears over the coronavirus pandemic cause voters to lose interest and states to delay primaries.
The status of a fourth primary, Ohio’s, scheduled for Tuesday is up in the air. Voters there did not cast ballots in person after GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and the state’s health commissioner ruled that conducting the election would be a threat to public health, causing the primary to be postponed.
Biden’s wins add to his significant advantage in delegates over Sanders and showed his coalition of older voters, Black voters and ideological moderates expanding as the Democratic rank and file appear eager to end the primary battle and begin focusing on a November showdown with President Donald Trump.
Biden now has an advantage of nearly 300 delegates over Sanders and has won 19 of the last 24 states to vote in the race. He was on track to win Florida by close to an astounding 40 percentage points, and he held strong double-digit leads in Illinois and Arizona. By the end of the night, he was projected to have more than half of the 1,991 delegates needed to secure the right to challenge Trump.
“Our campaign has had a very good night. And we’ve moved closer to securing the Democratic party’s nomination for president,” Biden said in a speech live-streamed from his home in Wilmington, Delaware. “We’re doing it by building the broad coalition that we will need to win in November.”
Earlier this month, both Biden and Sanders stopped holding rallies or primary night parties because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Turnout in all three states was boosted significantly by absentee and early ballots, with fears about COVID-19, the diseased caused by the coronavirus, lowering turnout on Election Day.
The Biden campaign, in a memo released before polls closed, said, “We held elections during the Civil War, the 1918 flu pandemic, and World War II. We are confident that we can meet that same challenge today and continue to uphold the core functions and values of our democracy.”
In the memo, deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield continued, “While voter turnout on Election Day itself may be lower due to COVID-19 concerns, we believe that, with early vote and vote by mail, overall turnout will be roughly on pace for 2016 in Arizona and Florida and roughly on pace for 2018 in Illinois, and that voter turnout in all three states will reflect the population at large.”
Sanders aides, meanwhile, posted videos of voters having to wait in long lines and suggested holding the election was risking lives.
Exit polls show few weaknesses in Biden’s coalition. He won both white and non-white voters in Florida by more than 30 percentage points, and won both groups by more than 20 percentage points in Illinois. He was winning voters both with and without college diplomas in both states. In Florida, he even had a slight edge over Sanders among self-identified “very liberal” voters and was winning in every single county.
Sanders retained his advantage among younger voters, but it did him little good. He won among voters younger than 45 by a 58%-to-37% margin over Biden in Florida, according to exit polls, by a 63%-to-31% margin in Illinois and by a 71%-to-19% margin in Arizona. But Biden’s margins among voters older than 45 were even greater in Florida and Illinois, and those voters made up 70% of the electorate in retiree-rich Florida, 65% in Arizona and 62% in Illinois.
Arizona painted a somewhat different picture. Sanders and Biden essentially tied among non-white voters because of Sanders’ strength with Latino voters of Mexican and Central American descent. (Biden performed stronger with Latino voters in Florida, many of whom trace their families back to Cuba or South America.)
Sanders is running low on opportunities to turn the race around. Georgia, where Biden was heavily favored, was set to vote on March 24, but has opted to delay its primary until June. That means the next election will be Puerto Rico’s March 29 primary, followed by Alaska, Hawaii and Wyoming on April 4 and Wisconsin ― which could function as a last stand for Sanders ― on April 7. That’s followed by another three-week break, at which point voters in a host of northeastern states will cast ballots on April 28.
The long gap between primaries, along with the pandemic’s rightful domination of the news cycle, means it could be near-impossible for Sanders to change the race’s narrative or its delegate math.
In his speech on Tuesday night, Biden began reaching out, at least rhetorically, to Sanders’s base of young and progressive voters and praising the senator for shifting the American political conversation to the left.
“Senator Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision,” he said. “Senator Sanders and his supporters have brought remarkable passion and tenacity to these issues, and together, they have shifted the fundamental conversation in the country. And let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do.”
His olive branch was rejected by at least on Sanders staffer.
The gap between Sanders’s and Biden’s vision for the country was put on display when Sanders spoke at 7:15 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, before all polls had closed in any state.
His address focused on his $2 trillion plan to respond to the recession economists believe the pandemic is likely to cause and included a plethora of provisions Biden is unlikely to embrace, including a $2,000-a-month stipend for all Americans, empowering Medicare to cover all medical costs during the pandemic and the suspension of mortgage and student loan payments.
“In this moment of crisis, it is imperative that we stand together,” Sanders said toward the start of the address.
In the 20-minute speech, he never mentioned Tuesday’s primary votes.