WASHINGTON – Joe Biden’s decisive victories in Florida, Illinois and Arizona on Tuesday effectively put the Democratic nomination out of reach for Bernie Sanders.
The former U.S. vice president won all three states by wide enough margins that he now has a majority of all delegates pledged so far, and more than half of the almost 2,000 he needs to secure the nomination at the party’s national convention this summer.
As in past victories, Biden was propelled by strong support from women, African Americans, older voters and those who described themselves as moderates or conservatives, according to surveys conducted by The Associated Press. But he also won half of all voters age 30 to 44, cutting into Sanders’s claim to younger voters. Sanders still won two-thirds of voters under 30, however.
“It’s clear, I think, the first day of the general election will start tomorrow,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who has endorsed Biden.
With the spreading coronavirus forcing businesses to send workers home and campaigns to abandon traditional rallies and events, Biden delivered televised remarks from his house in Delaware rather than give a victory speech in a crowded ballroom.
He spoke mostly about what the country needs to do to confront the crisis of the pandemic, “calling it a national emergency akin to a war.” But he also made an appeal for unity to the core of Sanders supporters whose votes he’ll need in the general election.
“To the young voters who have been inspired by Sen. Sanders, I hear you, I know what’s at stake, I know what we have to do,” Biden said in his remarks. “Our goal as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for president is to unify this party and then to unify the nation.”
Sanders delivered an address by livestream from Washington before all the polls were closed in Florida that made no mention of Biden, the night’s contest or the nomination race.
He instead focused on his own proposals to avoid an “economic catastrophe” caused by the coronavirus. “This is the richest country in the history of the world,” Sanders said. “We can address this crisis. We can minimize the pain and let us do just that.”
President Donald Trump, who has only token opposition in the Republican primaries, also reached a campaign milestone. He has reached the threshold of delegates needed to be the presumptive GOP nominee after running up 94 percent of the vote in Florida.
The three primaries were being held as the coronavirus outbreak spreads in the U.S. and disrupts schedules for businesses, schools and campaigns alike.
Ohio was supposed to be among the states voting on Tuesday, but the state health director ordered the polls closed despite a court on Monday rejecting Republican Gov. Mike DeWine’s effort to postpone. Five other states so far have announced they would delay primaries until late May or June because of the virus.
The outbreak appeared to be holding down in-person voter turnout for Tuesday’s primaries but early vote and mail-in balloting seemed to be on par or ahead of levels in 2016.
But with more states pushing back their primaries because of the public health emergency, it will be difficult for Biden to mathematically clinch the nomination before June unless Sanders drops out.
Sanders was already trailing Biden in polls, but the coronavirus pandemic has further hampered his campaign. He’s had to cancel the large-scale rallies that have helped him build an enthusiastic base. Many of the college campuses where he finds support from new voters have closed and sent students home. And older voters, who tend to vote early and by absentee ballot, overwhelmingly favor Biden.
Sanders himself has acknowledged that he’s losing the delegate battle — and that even supporters who agree with his policies are rallying around Biden as the nominee. But he says his proposals of Medicare for all and free college tuition are gaining support.
“Joe has won more states than I have. But here’s what we are winning. We are winning the ideological struggle,” the Vermont senator said, citing exit polls showing a majority of Democrats favor his health care plan. Sanders argues that the coronavirus pandemic makes his government-run health insurance plan even more essential.
The public health crisis could work to Biden’s advantage, as Democratic voters seek his experience as vice president over Sanders’s promise of a political revolution.
“If people were in a position where they were willing to take a risk, Bernie could have some appeal,” said former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who has endorsed Biden. “But I think what they want now is reassurance, and they want someone who is experienced, someone who is mature.”
Biden’s campaign sought to bolster the case for what they say is the inevitable outcome from Tuesday’s voting.
“It would take a drastic, historically incomparable swing for Senator Sanders to win more delegates than Biden today or to close the delegate differential,” Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield said in a statement. “Even if after tonight’s contests, Biden hasn’t significantly increased that lead, Sanders would need to win upcoming elections by an average of 15-20 points to overtake Biden in delegates.”
The question for Sanders is whether to keep his campaign going. For Biden’s allies, Sanders staying in would only make it harder to create the unity the Democratic Party will need to defeat Trump in November.
“What we can’t do is get into a process that makes it more likely that Donald Trump is re-elected,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana in a phone call with reporters arranged by the Biden campaign. “There are going to have to be hard decisions that are made after the next couple of primaries.”