Joe Biden went into Primary Day with two things: confidence and considerably more delegates than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). By Tuesday evening, he left with more of both.
After sweeping the primaries in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, the former vice president had a nearly insurmountable lead needed to win the Democratic nomination, crossing over halfway to 1,991 delegates.
“Americans in three states went to the polls today,” Biden said in his remarks after two contests had been called in his favor. “Today, it looks like once again, in Florida and Illinois, our campaign has had a very good night.”
A moment later, he addressed Sanders, who now can only realistically deny Biden a majority of delegates as opposed to winning the contest outright.
“Sen. Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision,” he said, adding that his supporters have brought a “remarkable passion” for progressive issues to the national discourse. To Sanders’ young supporters he said, “I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.”
His goal, according to his post-election remarks, is to unify the Democratic party first, and then the country. But what he didn’t have yet was a race all to himself.
“The real work to bring the party together will begin when there’s not two candidates in the race,” Steve Schale, the head of the pro-Biden super PAC Unite The Country, told The Daily Beast. “Families coming together,” he said. “That’s how the healing begins.”
That didn’t happen on Tuesday night.
Sanders made no mention of dropping out as he spoke to supporters during his own live streamed address before any states were called. Instead, he outlined a series of policy ideas targeted at the impact of the new coronavirus on everyday life. Workers need to continue getting a paycheck even when businesses are shut down, Sanders said, and he called for a $2,000 cash payment to every American household each month until the crisis is over.
Like Biden, the historical significance seemed to weigh on Sanders as he spoke.
“What this country is experiencing right now is something that we have never experienced in the modern history of this country,” he said.
But as one candidate suffered a devastating electoral blow, the other had been preparing for another series of blowout victories for weeks. In a call with reporters on Sunday night, Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser, said they were going to wait to see how “the tea leaves shake out” before making any major predictions. Still, she indicated she was feeling “very confident.”
That confidence rippled throughout the campaign. Before any results came in, officials released a memo stating they “expect to emerge tonight with a bigger delegate lead” than they previously had heading into voting, adding, “it would take a drastic, historically-incomparable swing for Senator Sanders to win more delegates than Biden today or to close the delegate differential.”
“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,” the memo states. “We have seen record-high early voting.”
With Illinois, Florida, and Arizona in his favor, Biden moved significantly closer to becoming the likely Democratic nominee.
Before that happened, three other states, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia, had already announced they would push back their primaries that were set to be held in the coming weeks. Maryland, set to vote April 28, joined that movement during a Tuesday morning press conference.
A Sanders campaign official said in a statement Tuesday that traditional get-out-the-vote moves were not being used in the March 17 primary states. And some in Sanders orbit were venting frustration over what was playing out in the states that went forward with their Tuesday contests.
“Biden’s campaign has lied repeatedly about the safety of going to the polls,” Sanders national press secretary Briahna Joy Gray tweeted Tuesday. “Bernie Sanders is putting the health and safety of the country first.”
Well before polls closed, at least one prominent Sanders supporter tweeted out a Chicago Sun-Times story and bemoaned what Tuesday had become.
“Suppressed voter turnout. Closed polls. No hand sanitizer. News that #COVID19 actually hangs in the air up to 3 hours. NONE of this had to happen,” tweeted Michelle Deatrick, a Democratic National Committee member from Michigan who is backing Sanders.
Earlier in the day, Deatrick had tweeted that “COVID-19 can survive in the air for up to THREE hours. Holding in-person voting today in three states is putting people's lives at risk.”
As the results came in, Sanders surrogate, former presidential candidate, and anti-vaxxer Marianne Williamson said Tuesday’s primaries should be “nullified.”
“Good luck Tom, getting everybody to feel all unified and good about voting in November.” she tweeted. “This is not what the Democratic Party should be.”
Still, with only two major contenders left in the 2020 race, delegate estimates still show Biden a ways away from clinching the majority he needs to become the nominee. While that may encourage some of Sanders’ more ardent supporters, it’s also incredibly difficult for the 78-year-old senator to overtake Biden’s substantial lead based on how the party allocates delegates once states have voted.
But interest in Sanders remains high. The coronavirus pandemic has played into his longstanding calls to pass Medicare for All, and his campaign announced that a trio of digital events the campaign held from Saturday to Monday had already hit 5.3 million views.
The events ranged from a low-key fireside chat with Sanders and his campaign manager to a digital rally where musical performers like Neil Young were mixed together with Sanders and his surrogates championing his cause.
Biden, for his part, has held his own tele-town halls to discuss a variety of campaign issues with voters, and has generally ramped up efforts as the Democratic frontrunner. Leaning on unifying rhetoric to console Americans concerned about the unknown impact of pandemic,, the former vice president held his last public appearance in his native Delaware on Tuesday, before going all digital.
“No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks but I can promise you this: when I’m president, we will be better prepared, respond better and recover better. We will lead with science,” Biden said in Wilmington, in a speech that was intended to sound presidential in tone and substance.
In the following days, he reiterated similar remarks in a series of events, only occasionally evoking President Donald Trump’s name to make a point of contrast to what a possible Biden administration could offer.
“Downplaying it, being overly dismissive, or spreading misinformation is only going to hurt us,” he added.
For nearly a year, Biden’s campaign has made an explicit electability pitch as the candidate best suited to take on Trump in a general election matchup. That electability argument has been brushed off by Sanders in recent days.
“We've changed the political dialogue in this country,” Sanders said during a Monday night virtual rally. “We are winning overwhelmingly the support of young people. Now the problem we're running into politically, let me be honest with you, is that for a variety of reasons which I won't go into now, most people think that Joe Biden is the more electable candidate in terms of defeating Donald Trump. I honestly don't believe that.”
To be sure, Sanders’ path to the Democratic nomination was quickly closing ahead of Tuesday’s contests. The Vermont Independent is now expected to face added pressure to exit the 2020 race, not only to prevent Democrats from suffering through another lengthy primary process, but also to help address safety concerns about heading to the polls.
“We've never had to have voting in memory that takes place (under) the umbrella of a pandemic like this,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.
Redlener, who is also a member of Biden's Public Health Advisory Committee, described the current climate of voting and health as “a very significant clash of values and missions,” as voting went on Tuesday.
The best solution “of all,” he said Tuesday afternoon, would be if Sanders conceded.
“Right now. Today,” Redlener said when asked about voting and health concerns. “So we don't need any more primaries. That would be the most effective public health measure I could imagine.”
Speaking about Sanders after Biden’s Florida win, Democratic strategist David Axelrod said on CNN: “We know how this is going to end, we just don’t know when. He needs to consider these factors.”
But delegate math seemed far from Sanders' thoughts as he spoke Tuesday night, consumed once again with how the country should be fighting the pandemic. Finger occasionally wagging at the camera, he focused on healthcare and policy ideas.
“In this moment of crisis, it is imperative that we stand together,” Sanders said.