In a primary night marred by reduced turnout among voters fearing coronavirus exposure at the polls and one primary (Ohio) postponed at the last minute, Joe Biden won another sweep in three states spanning the country. He beat Bernie Sanders in every county in Florida and trounced him statewide by nearly 40 points. With over 80 percent of precincts reporting in Illinois, a state where Sanders supporters thought they might win an upset (a hope reinforced by the state’s relative dependence on Election Day balloting shunned by some older voters), Biden is leading by better than 20 points statewide, and is carrying all but one county (student-heavy Champaign County). And in Arizona, Biden leads by double-digits, with much of the large early vote counted.
There was no traditional exit polling in these March 17 primaries thanks to a combination of heavy voting by mail and polling place “social distancing” guidelines. But late media polling suggests that in all three states Bernie Sanders’s base was reduced to his core of younger voters, who indeed stuck with him, even in Florida. Sanders continued to lose ground among the African-Americans who seemed to be giving him an audition earlier in the cycle, and he lost Latinos in Florida, while failing to carry them convincingly in Arizona. In all three states, Biden beat him soundly among the white non-college-educated voters that Sanders won so often against Hillary Clinton in 2016. And turnout patterns did not favor his share of the electorate, despite the many factors that might have discouraged voting by the elderly.
Turnout was indeed a big story today. In Illinois, the March 17 state with the lowest levels of early voting by mail, turnout dropped to just over half the level registered in the 2016 primary. Turnout was down marginally in Florida, where over a million Democrats voted early, and was actually up in vote-by-mail-heavy Arizona. But neither turnout patterns nor the demographic peculiarities of these relatively three diverse states helped Bernie Sanders overcome what is becoming a systemic shortfall against Biden. The former veep had another strong delegate harvest from Florida and Illinois (which will likely be increased when Arizona’s vote is fully in), roughly doubling the 150 pledged-delegate lead he had before these primaries. Nate Silver summed it all up:
Maybe Arizona won’t be an enormous win for Biden, but it was one of Sanders’s best remaining states given how well he did in Nevada and California. Sanders really isn’t performing well anywhere at the moment.
What makes these primaries significant (other than continuing Biden’s recent winning streak) is that there may soon be a drought in returns thanks to states postponing primaries. Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez has criticized this trend and encouraged states to increase voting-by-mail opportunities and polling-place safety improvements instead. But the big question coming out of the March 17 primaries is whether Biden’s increasing dominance over the race will convince Bernie Sanders to drop out even though primary postponements will make it harder for the front-runner to formally win a majority of pledged delegates in the near future.
As time goes by, Biden is broadening his base of support even as Sanders’s gradually shrinks. As the coronavirus makes voters increasingly risk-averse and security-conscious, it’s unclear what, if anything, could theoretically give the candidate promising a “political revolution” the kind of big comeback opportunity he needs to remain viable.