The former vice president Joe Biden swept to convincing victories in Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and, most importantly, Michigan
Joe Biden has opened an all-but-insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, as the party’s voters increasingly turn to him as the candidate they believe is best equipped to take on President Donald Trump in November.
The former vice president swept to convincing victories in Missouri, Mississippi, Idaho and, most importantly, Michigan. The state was the biggest prize of the night and is strategically important for both parties in the general election.
In a speech to supporters in Philadelphia, Biden sought to heal divisions in the party and sounded like a candidate ready to claim the nomination.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said. “Together we’ll defeat Donald Trump.”
Sanders was hoping for a win in Washington state, which had the second biggest cache of delegates at stake on Tuesday. But by early Wednesday morning, he and Biden were neck and neck in the mail-in vote, and the race was too close to call. Results in North Dakota were incomplete.
Sanders returned to his Burlington, Vermont, home before the polls closed Tuesday and skipped the traditional primary night address to supporters.
The two face each other in a debate Sunday, the first one-on-one faceoff of the campaign, but this time without a live audience due to coronavirus fears.
And then there’s another round of primaries next week in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Arizona that now could determine whether the race between Biden and Sanders drags on or effectively ends.
A Democratic primary contest that just two weeks ago had Sanders as the clear front-runner seems about to slip away from the Vermont senator in surprisingly quick fashion, accelerating after Biden won South Carolina on Feb. 29. Sanders took his primary battle with Hillary Clinton until June in 2016, just as Clinton did with Barack Obama in 2008. A shorter fight could prove a major advantage to Biden, allowing him to avoid the rigors of a primary fight and bank millions in cash that will be needed to confront Trump.
More than half of all the pledged delegates have yet to be decided, so Biden can’t mathematically clinch the nomination until April 28 at the earliest.
But the delegate math is getting daunting for Sanders. The count from Tuesday was incomplete but as of midnight, Biden had 817 delegates to Sanders 658. Sanders would have to win more than 57% of the remaining delegates to catch up to Biden — a difficult feat given the Biden-friendly primary calendar over the next six weeks.
“There’s no sugar-coating it, tonight’s a tough night,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter and star of the progressive movement, said during an Instagram live chat.
Exit polls conducted for television networks suggested Democratic voters were looking for a conventional and safe choice, which is how Biden has tried to position himself against Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist. More than half said they preferred a candidate who can beat Trump over one who agrees with them on the issues.
That was illustrated starkly in Michigan, where 57% said they support replacing all private health insurance with a government-run plan, the signature issue for Sanders. Yet Biden had 53% of the vote in the state to 38% for Sanders with three-quarters of precincts reporting.
Tuesday’s primaries were held as the country was in the grip of a spreading coronavirus outbreak that has roiled financial markets and raised the risk that the U.S. economy could teeter into recession. That environment also played to Biden’s strengths as a candidate; exit polls showed that voters in Missouri, Washington and Michigan overwhelmingly trust Biden over Sanders to handle a major crisis.
Biden’s victories cement a remarkable comeback. He entered the race as the Democratic front-runner in a record-sized field. But a series of stumbles early this year left him an also-ran in the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
Sanders, meanwhile, surged in national polls and had a solid fundraising network and a national campaign infrastructure left from his run for the nomination in 2016.
That all changed in South Carolina. Bolstered by strong support from African-American voters and his longstanding relationships with the state’s power brokers, Biden won the state convincingly.
That convinced many of his competitors, particularly those competing with Biden for centrist Democratic voters, to drop out. Biden then went on to victories in 10 of 14 states in the Super Tuesday round of primaries.
The Democratic Party has been rallying around Biden. Former competitors Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Michael Bloomberg and Andrew Yang have endorsed him.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who was Sanders’s rival for leader of the party’s progressive wing, ended her campaign on March 5 after failing to place higher than third in a primary or caucus. She’s said she’s not ready to endorse a candidate.
Yang, who endorsed Biden while analyzing the results on CNN, said “the math says” the former vice president is the presumptive nominee. Yang said he wanted to let the Democratic process play out, but “we need to come together as a party, starting tonight.”
Yang offered a road map for Biden on how to win over Sanders supporters. “I get it,” he said, referring to the frustrations among younger voters who want change to come faster than Biden may offer. But beating Donald Trump comes first, Yang said, adding that he, Sanders and Warren would have their voices heard in a Biden administration.
The coronavirus outbreak is also looming over the race, and its long-term impact on the presidential campaigns is unclear. Sanders and Biden both canceled planned rallies in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday and said they were evaluating future events.
Trump said over the weekend that he would continue holding campaign rallies with thousands of supporters regardless of the threat of the virus. He planned an event in the Wisconsin Center, which holds thousands of people on March 19.