We may be living in a vastly different world than we were a week ago, but one constant remains: Joe Biden appears well on his way to being the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Right out of the gate on Tuesday night, Biden notched a nearly 40-point win in Florida, the state with the biggest cache of delegates. He followed it up soon after with another resounding win in Illinois and won Arizona shortly after polls closed there.
By the end of the night, Biden had vaulted over the 1,000-delegate threshold (he needs 1,991 to clinch the nomination). It’s a comfortable lead coming pretty early in the calendar. And while it’s too soon to declare him the winner of the primary, it’s difficult to see Sanders making up enough ground to win.
Beyond the election outcome, the impacts of the spreading coronavirus outbreak in the US could be seen even before Tuesday’s primaries got underway. On Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine postponed the state’s primary until June 2, unwilling to put poll workers or voters in danger.
Even with the coronavirus, not all states had low turnout. Florida’s primary turnout actually exceeded 2016 levels, with early voting and voting by mail accounting for a significant portion of the total turnout.
This could make the case for more states to adopt voting by mail or no-excuse absentee voting going forward. As federal and state lawmakers grapple with how to prepare poll workers and voters for the rest of an uncertain primary season, the results Tuesday night demonstrated that states with early voting and voting by mail already in place still can have good turnout — even amid a massive public health crisis.
What follows is our sense of what happened on Tuesday — who won, who lost, and what we learned about how America may need to change its elections during a pandemic.
Winner: Joe Biden
In a rapidly narrowing race, it seems Biden is coming out on top.
Ohio postponing its vote ultimately didn’t matter for Biden’s delegate math. Biden’s big prize was always going to be Florida, and he won it right off the bat, taking home a substantial chunk of the state’s 219 delegates. Soon after, he clinched a double-digit win in Illinois, even though that state’s turnout was significantly down. Biden also won Arizona minutes after polls closed there at 11 pm Eastern.
None of this was particularly surprising. In fact, Biden’s real test came last week during the March 10 primaries, and he passed with flying colors. Last Tuesday, Biden romped in expected states like Mississippi as well as unexpected ones like Washington. He won over both black voters and working-class white voters in the Michigan primary, a state Sanders won in 2016 and fiercely contested in 2020.
Biden also had a fairly strong debate on Sunday, going head to head with Sanders in Washington, DC. Despite some slips here and there, Biden was pretty sharp and exuded confidence, leadership, and reassurance when it came to the elephant in the room: handling the coronavirus pandemic. The faster this becomes a general election, the better it is for Biden. The coronavirus is already allowing the former vice president to draw a stark contrast with President Donald Trump.
Biden was only expected to gain momentum on March 17, and that’s exactly what happened.
Loser: Bernie Sanders
Sanders’s window to becoming the Democratic nominee has been shrinking since South Carolina and Super Tuesday, and after this last round of voting, his path didn’t become any easier.
As the Economist’s G. Elliott Morris pointed out, Biden’s lead once the votes are in from Florida, Illinois, and Arizona could surpass 300 delegates. That would mean Sanders would need to get more than 60 percent of the remaining delegates to get the 1,991 a candidate needs to become the nominee. Impossible? No. Unlikely? Yes.
Whether Sanders will continue to fight is unclear. While he could theoretically stage a comeback, he is trailing significantly, and concerns about the coronavirus spread add even more pressure to his decisions moving forward. People going to polling places increases the risk for the disease to spread, even though many of Sanders’s policy proposals — universal health care, student debt forgiveness, paid family leave — could be quite beneficial to society at this moment.
If Sanders eventually leaves the race, it may be a loss for his candidacy, but it will be a victory for many of his ideas, which are now part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
Winner: Mike DeWine
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has been among the most proactive state leaders on reacting to the coronavirus outbreak to date, including when it comes to the state’s primary. Originally slotted for Tuesday, Ohio’s primary is now scheduled to take place on June 2, largely at the behest of its Republican governor.
On Monday, DeWine recommended that Ohio delay its presidential primary, noting that in-person voting makes it impossible to comply with CDC guidelines around the coronavirus. It took some legal maneuvering to do it, as Vox’s Li Zhou explained, in which DeWine had to go through the courts instead of the state legislature. He backed a lawsuit from plaintiffs arguing the March primary would disenfranchise them because they wouldn’t be able to participate over health concerns. A judge initially rejected the request to push it back, but DeWine forged ahead, instructing the polls to be closed under the authority granted during a public health emergency. On Tuesday morning, the Ohio Supreme Court supported the polls closing anyway.
While it’s not clear what the coronavirus situation in the United States or anywhere will be on June 2, DeWine’s decision to push for the polls to be closed now is a win for voting and for public health. Ohio voters weren’t forced to choose between going to their polling places or sitting out the primary. And people will be able to vote absentee by mail until the new primary date in more than two months.
Loser: Turnout at the polls
Getting voters to show up at the polls can be challenging even in the best of times. But as public officials warned Americans to practice social distancing to protect themselves and others from the global coronavirus pandemic, it appeared that in-person turnout in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona took a hit.
Polling locations have been taking some precautions, providing hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and protective masks for poll workers and urging voters to line up while keeping a safe distance from one another. Precise data on turnout isn’t yet available, but based on reports so far, that didn’t appear to assure voters.
One election judge in Illinois told the Chicago Sun-Times that turnout was lower than she’s seen in two decades, with about a third of Illinois voters claiming they were “very concerned” that they or a family member would contract the virus, according to an Associated Press survey. The New York Times reported that overall turnout was less than half what it was in the 2016 primary.
Turnout also declined in some Florida counties where polling locations were changed at the last minute. But NBC News estimated turnout at 2 million in the state overall, up from 1.7 million in 2016. That might be because almost half of Florida voters — nearly 1.1 million — participated in early voting or mail-in voting, a 20 percent jump over 2016. The Florida Democratic Party consequently recommended on Tuesday that the Democratic National Committee encourage other states’ officials to expand mail-in voting and other alternatives to in-person voting.
Arizona has a strong tradition of early voting, so voter turnout appeared to be slightly up overall, even if people weren’t showing up to the polls in person in the same numbers as prior election years.
Winner: Vote by mail and early voting
The March 17 primaries just helped vote-by-mail advocates in the US Senate make their case in a big way.
As actual voting-day turnout in states like Illinois suffered, other states like Florida made up the difference with strong early voting and vote-by-mail numbers. As noted above, the overall Florida turnout was so resilient to coronavirus “because almost half of Florida voters — nearly 1.1 million — participated in early voting or mail-in voting, a 20 percent jump over 2016.”
As it turns out, there’s a new effort in the US Senate to get early voting and vote by mail to be more widespread, in light of the coronavirus. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) plan to introduce an updated bill to expand both in-person early voting and no-excuse absentee vote by mail, and require states to set up contingency plans in case of an emergency like the coronavirus.
Setting up a vote-by-mail system has taken on a new urgency. The coronavirus already caused Ohio to postpone its election, and other states, including Kentucky, Louisiana, and Georgia, are also pushing their elections later into the calendar.
The 2020 primary calendar is suddenly looking very up in the air, and increasing states’ vote-by-mail capacity could give American elections some sense of normalcy. Even though the bill’s authors don’t necessarily think the bill could impact spring elections, they at least want these safeguards in place by Election Day in November.
Loser: Anti-abortion Democrats
After successfully fending off past primary opponents, moderate anti-abortion Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) was defeated by progressive challenger Marie Newman in Illinois’s Third Congressional District. Newman came close to beating Lipinski in 2018, and on Tuesday night, the Congress member lost a seat he’s held since 2005.
Lipinski’s loss has dealt a blow to the remaining anti-abortion Democrats left in the US House of Representatives. The other two who regularly vote against abortion rights are Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson and Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar. This year, Cuellar narrowly fended off a serious primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a young progressive woman in his district.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the official campaign arm of House Democrats — put money into both Lipinski and Cuellar’s reelection efforts because it has committed to protecting incumbents. But DCCC assistance ultimately couldn’t save Lipinski.
Lipinski has a long anti-abortion record, from opposing the Affordable Care Act and its mandate that employers cover birth control to voting to defund health clinics that offered abortion services and banning abortions at 20 weeks. Newman, on the other hand, supports abortion rights.
Newman just fell short of beating Lipinski in 2018, by 2,200 votes. This time, she bested him.