Joe Biden is looking more and more like the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, adding to his delegate lead on Tuesday with another set of primary victories that further deflated Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
Six states voted on Tuesday, and Biden won the first three to close their polls: Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri. Voting continued in Washington, Idaho and North Dakota.
Michigan, where Sanders upset Hillary Clinton in 2016, was the night’s biggest prize, awarding 125 of the night’s 352 delegates. With about half of all precincts reporting, Biden was on track to capture the state by double-digits, padding his lead in delegates to the party’s nominating convention in July in Milwaukee and dealing a blow to Sanders’ claims of strength in the Rust Belt—and his fading hopes of overtaking the former Vice President for the nomination.
As Biden celebrated his victories Tuesday night, some Democrats began to argue that Biden had all but clinched the nomination. “The math is now clear. Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee for President,” tweeted Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, a top Democratic super PAC. Asked if Biden’s nomination was becoming inevitable, former Clinton aide Zac Petkanas deadpanned: “I’m not the only one who can count, right?”
The former Vice President has enjoyed a charmed two-week stretch. He went 0-for-3 in the first nominating contests, then posted a convincing victory in South Carolina that set off a chain of victories from coast to coast on Super Tuesday. Biden has out-performed Clinton’s margins against Sanders in counties with loads of young people and turnout in many places has doubled. Defeating Trump is a driving motivation for Democrats, and Biden’s pitch that he is the stronger challenger against the incumbent President seems to have moved wavering voters into his column.
Once again, Biden’s enduring strength with African-American voters proved key. It helped Biden scare Sanders into all-but-conceding Mississippi — where two-thirds of the turnout was African American, higher even than South Carolina’s showing — and black voters were expected to be crucial in Michigan and Missouri, too. In Mississippi, Biden claimed an 84% share of the black vote, according to exit polls. In Missouri, Biden earned 75% support from the one-in-five voters who were black, according to exit polls. And in Michigan, Biden rode to success with 66% support from black voters, who represented one-in-five voters.
As polls closed on Tuesday, Biden advisers were so confident in their position that they had planned for Biden to watch the returns come in from Cleveland ahead of Ohio’s March 17 primary. (Instead, Biden met with reporters not far from his campaign headquarters in Philadelphia after coronavirus warnings forced a last-minute shift in plans.) As the final ballots were being cast, both Biden and Sanders canceled campaign events in Cleveland, where three cases of coronavirus have been found.
A few hours later, Biden aides announced he was canceling a Thursday rally in Tampa and instead planned to deliver a speech near his home in Delaware. Sunday night’s debate in Phoenix will take place without an audience in the theater. The scheduling changes were a reminder that events out of the candidates’ control can upend elections in unexpected ways.
There was no immediate signal that Sanders was preparing to end his bid on Tuesday, leaving open the possibility of a messy slog through the primaries that stretch into June. In an email to supporters before the final tally was in, Sanders’ campaign manager urged faith: “The first polls closed a short while ago. But please know this: once again, tonight’s results are going to get better for us as the night goes on. We expect to do well out west where the polls close late, and Michigan may not even come in until tomorrow.”
Still, Sanders had retreated to his home in Burlington, Vt., and did not speak to reporters as results were showing him having a very rough night.
Speaking to his campaign staff and reporters in Philadelphia, Biden had a message for Sanders’ voters to “thank them for their tireless energy and their passion.” Sounding very much as though Sanders had already left the race, Biden invited those Sanders fans to join Team Joe. “We share a common goal. Together, we will defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together,” Biden said.
But with Democrats eager to turn to the general election, an abrupt end to a primary that once seemed destined to drag on may be in sight.
— With reporting by Lissandra Villa/Washington