Twelve days ago, when Sen. Bernie Sanders was riding high and former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign needed a big bounce in South Carolina, it looked like Florida could weigh heavily in the Democratic presidential primary.
Even a week ago, it seemed Florida might tip the scales in some way.
That now seems unlikely. Biden’s dominating victories on Tuesday, coupled with concerns over the fast-spreading coronavirus, have dramatically changed this race. Even if Sanders decides to continue the fight through Florida’s primary next week — and there’s no indication he won’t — it’s unclear how he’ll campaign amid the outbreak.
Biden leads Sanders by 160 delegates after Tuesday, with results still coming in from Washington and Idaho, and will enter Florida looking to add to his hot streak. He’s still less than halfway to the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination, but he is well on his way. Sanders’ path to crossing that threshold is less apparent.
Coronavirus cases in Cleveland forced Sanders and Biden to cancel Election Night rallies in Ohio. Biden will forgo a scheduled visit to Tampa on Thursday and his campaign is assessing whether it will hold any events in Florida during this state of emergency. The AFL-CIO also nixed a planned presidential forum on labor issues in Orlando due to the virus. Biden and Sanders were supposed to attend.
Sanders has not yet announced any new plans to travel to Florida, where there are now 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus. He didn’t speak Tuesday night as results trickled in.
Florida was never a state Sanders was projected to do well in to begin with, but the coronavirus scare has put him in a tough position. He could campaign here and risk blowback over public health worries (and in some cases warnings) or shelve his best political weapon, his large, energetic rallies, and let his televisions ads do the work.
But if he does have a last gasp, next Tuesday has many delegates at stake to spur a turnaround. In addition to Florida’s 219 delegates up for grabs, Illinois, Ohio and Arizona are also major prizes to be won.
And there is one opportunity for a Sanders Hail Mary: Sunday’s debate.
“I, for one, am extremely excited about this debate all the moderates are panicking about,” Sanders’ spokeswoman Briahna Joy Gray tweeted Tuesday night. “America finally gets to see Biden defend his ideas, or lack there of, on Sunday.”
But Sanders won’t have crowd reaction to punctuate any decisive moments he might have because, again, the coronavirus convinced Democrats to hold the debate with no live audience.
Sanders is not one to back down from a fight, even a losing one. In 2016, he challenged Hillary Clinton late into the primary calendar before she was declared the nominee. In her tweet, Gray noted that Biden is nowhere near reaching the delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
That is to say: Florida Democrats will still need to show up on Tuesday.
But Sanders is now losing states that once made him a viable presidential contender against Clinton. On Tuesday, Biden took every county in Michigan, a Sanders state four years ago, and fared well in Missouri, which Clinton only narrowly won. He also handily won Mississippi, continuing his dominance of Sanders in the South and among black voters.
That Sanders’ chances suddenly diminished is a testament to how the Democratic field — once splitting votes six ways — so quickly coalesced around the former vice president. Winning 25 to 30 percent of the vote in most state looked like a winning strategy, until it became a two-man race.
Biden’s lead now appears so insurmountable, that former presidential contender Andrew Yang, a Sanders supporter in 2016 whose campaign slogan this year was “MATH,” declared Biden the nominee and endorsed his campaign while sitting on a CNN panel.
For Biden, Florida would be an affirmation of his strong position as he marches toward the nomination, and not necessarily a race decider.
Biden extended an olive branch to Sanders’ supporters Tuesday after the night broke his way.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said. “We share a common goal, and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together.”
The premise, if not the promise, of Biden’s campaign was that he could win the blue collar, Midwest vote that Clinton lost in 2016. The premise of Sanders’ campaign was that he could win young and disenchanted voters in unprecedented numbers.
One has delivered. The other has not.