Amid Covid-19 pandemic, Joe Biden wins Florida and Illinois as virus disruptions reshape American politics

For Sanders, 78, the country’s sudden turn away from the campaign may have the effect of smothering even the most determined effort to block Biden, 77, or broaden his own political appeal.

The New York Times March 18, 2020 10:06:14 IST
Amid Covid-19 pandemic, Joe Biden wins Florida and Illinois as virus disruptions reshape American politics

Joe Biden easily defeated Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Florida and Illinois primaries on Tuesday, all but extinguishing Sanders’ chances for a comeback on an Election Day conducted amid a series of cascading disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden, the former vice president, was seen as having a strong advantage over Sanders in a third state, Arizona, but early in the evening, he had not yet been declared the winner there. Should Biden sweep the night, he could amass the kind of insurmountable delegate lead that could greatly intensify pressure on Sanders to end his campaign.

Amid Covid19 pandemic Joe Biden wins Florida and Illinois as virus disruptions reshape American politics

Former vice-president Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Los Angeles on Super Tuesday. By Josh Haner © 2020 The New York Times

The routs in Florida and Illinois represented both a vote of confidence in Biden from most Democrats and a blunt rejection of Sanders’ candidacy by the kind of large, diverse states he would have needed to capture to broaden his appeal beyond the ideological left.

Sanders, of Vermont, has struggled since his first presidential campaign in 2016 to win over black voters in larger numbers and to persuade voters who do not share his ethos of democratic socialism that he can be trusted to lead the party into the general election.

In the two biggest states voting on Tuesday, Sanders failed: Biden carried Illinois by a wide margin, keeping intact his winning streak in the large Midwestern primary states, after previously winning in Minnesota and Michigan. And the victory in Florida was a particularly sharp repudiation of Sanders: Many moderate and conservative Hispanic voters in the state had recoiled from his past praise of leftist governments in Latin America, including his admiring remarks about certain achievements of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

But the day of voting may have been most notable for a state that did not vote: The turmoil caused by the coronavirus upended plans for a primary election in Ohio, where state officials postponed voting in an abrupt manoeuvre that barely survived last-minute legal scrutiny. Four other states have also taken steps to delay their primary elections until late this spring, with Maryland on Tuesday becoming the latest to push back voting.

In the states that did vote, there were signs that the virus had dampened voter turnout and that the Democratic presidential campaigns and other party leaders were not engaged on Tuesday in the traditional all-out push to drive supporters to the polls. Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told voters on Twitter to “remember your health comes first,” while the Sanders campaign released a statement denouncing the muscular get-out-the-vote tactics that have defined its operations in other primaries.

It made for an extraordinary day in the country’s electoral history, featuring candidates who could not campaign in public and party officials who were navigating the delicate line between protecting public safety and the civic right to nominate a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

In a gesture to the gravity of the moment, Biden used much of his brief victory address — via a balky livestream from his Wilmington, Delaware, home — to discuss the virus and to reassure the country.

“We’ll get through this together,” said Biden, trying to project a presidential bearing to a rattled nation. He only fleetingly mentioned Tuesday’s results, noting he had “a very good night,” before directly speaking to Sanders’ youthful supporters, a voting group he is trying to court.

“I hear you; I know what’s at stake; I know what we have to do,” Biden said. “Our goal as a campaign, and my goal as a candidate, is to unify this party and unify this nation.”

Praising the “remarkable passion and tenacity” of Sanders and his supporters, the former vice president said he and the senator disagree on tactics but “share a common vision.”

Sanders did not deliver a speech about the primary results but earlier in the evening he broadcast his own online address calling for sweeping government action to remedy the economic damage of the crippling virus, including an initiative to give people $2,000 monthly payments for the duration of the crisis.

“We must make certain that this health and economic crisis is not another moneymaking opportunity for corporate America and for Wall Street,” Sanders said, eschewing any mention of the primaries.

Biden’s victory in Florida relied in part on a familiar coalition of voters who have supported him in other states, including African Americans, political moderates and voters over 50, according to a preelection poll there. But polls suggested that Biden would also finish narrowly ahead of Sanders with people who described themselves as very liberal, and that the former vice president would beat him by double digits among voters who said the economic system needed a complete overhaul.

The virus drove down turnout in some Florida localities, but even with the pandemic, turnout was still higher than in 2016 in a handful of suburban and affluent communities, such as Naples and suburban Jacksonville. Biden won both jurisdictions handily, as he has in other upscale precincts since Super Tuesday, a sign of his strength with the sort of voters who could swing the general election.

The results appeared somewhat more competitive in Illinois, which has a younger and more liberal electorate than Florida’s. In Illinois, Sanders was dominating with voters under 45 and among the most liberal Democrats to cast ballots.

In all three states, voters said by huge margins that they believed Biden was the candidate best prepared to handle a major crisis.

More than 1 million people cast ballots early or by mail in advance of Primary Day, according to election officials in the three states, suggesting that the contests could represent a clear enough statement on the trajectory of the Democratic campaign.

Biden has built a formidable lead over Sanders since the start of the month, leaping far ahead of him in national polls and collecting 151 more delegates out of the 1,805 allotted so far, according to a New York Times analysis. Influential leaders at every level of Democratic politics have swung behind Biden, reinforcing his position as the overwhelming choice of the party’s moderate establishment.

In just the states voting Tuesday, Biden had the support of Illinois’ powerful governor, JB Pritzker, both its senators and the mayor of Chicago; Arizona’s Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema; and every Democratic member of Florida’s congressional delegation. Over the weekend, the former vice president was backed by the National Education Association, the teachers’ union that is the largest organized labour organisation in the country.

Sanders has not indicated that he is likely to stand down even if he is roundly defeated this week, and his advisers indicated in the runup to Tuesday’s primaries that he was likely to stay in the race and continue collecting as many delegates as he can. He used a debate Sunday to deliver his most focused critique so far of Biden’s policy record and personal judgment, on a range of defining issues for Democratic voters.

But both candidates are still adapting to the halting new pace of the campaign, which is now strictly confined by several factors: a patchwork of travel restrictions and local shutdowns; a near-blackout of news unrelated to the pandemic; and the two ageing candidates’ concern for their own health.

For Sanders, 78, the country’s sudden turn away from the campaign may have the effect of smothering even the most determined effort to block Biden, 77, or broaden his own political appeal.

The Vermont senator has long relied on huge rallies and a loud microphone in the national news media to advance his candidacy, and for the moment both tools appear to be unavailable. And Sanders may face growing complaints, even from liberal Democrats, that he is keeping the party divided at a moment when the stakes of the election have never been clearer or more urgent.

Yet the campaign freeze may be an obstacle for Biden, too, particularly if Sanders persists with a long-shot challenge that could take months to resolve. Biden had been hoping to extinguish Sanders’ candidacy with a string of landslide victories, continuing his momentum into the contests this week and then into the Georgia primary this coming Tuesday.

But like Ohio, Georgia recently announced it was moving its primary election; there is now the possibility of a major backlog of primaries in the late spring that could tempt Sanders to stay in the race and hope for a major shift in its political fundamentals.

Even if Sanders is largely sidelined by the coronavirus crisis, his continued presence in the race could hinder Biden’s ability to establish himself as the presumptive Democratic nominee and to turn his attention exclusively toward President Donald Trump.

While he has been off the trail over the past week, Biden has begun to run something like a Rose Garden campaign or whatever the equivalent is for someone who is not already the president: He appointed a public health task force and unveiled a detailed policy agenda for addressing the coronavirus in a formal speech Thursday. Over the weekend Biden held a phone call with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, his progressive former rival, and endorsed liberal policies on higher education and bankruptcy reform in an effort to woo the left.

It is not clear how long Biden and Sanders might be kept from campaigning altogether. Both men are confronting the likelihood that they will not be able to hold traditional campaign events until well into the spring, at the earliest, and even the possibility that the summer nominating conventions could be endangered by the imperatives of fighting the coronavirus.

The elections Tuesday offered new evidence of just how difficult it had become to hold any semblance of normal primary elections. There were reports in multiple states of election workers not showing up at the polls; even in densely populated and heavily Democratic areas, like Miami-Dade County in Florida and Cook County in Illinois, voter turnout appeared low Tuesday morning.

Most of all, the frenzy of sudden, and sometimes contradictory, last-minute announcements in Ohio underscored the potential for outright chaos at the polls. Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican, who has been among the most aggressive state executives shuttering schools and public events in order to mandate social distancing, declared late Monday that he would not allow Ohio’s primary to go forward.

After an initial setback in court, DeWine’s state health director issued an order closing the polls as a health emergency, and early Tuesday a state court allowed that decision to go forward. It was not immediately clear how Ohio would go about reviving the primary, but DeWine said Tuesday that it would have been irresponsible to proceed with in-person voting this week.

“This is a gathering of people, and what we’ve tried to do is explain to Ohioans we cannot have large gatherings,” DeWine said of the primary election, in a television appearance Tuesday.

Election officials in the other three states voting Tuesday conceded that the coronavirus was a cause for concern but said that they were taking steps to sanitise the polls. And in perhaps a bleak reflection of the country’s present condition, Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, warned that there was “no guarantee that there will be a safer time to hold this election in the near future.”

“The longer we wait, the more difficult and dangerous it could become,” she said.

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin c.2020 The New York Times Company

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