With Florida’s help, former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead in the Democratic presidential primary grew Tuesday from commanding to nearly impassable, further pressing rival Sen. Bernie Sanders to abandon his ideological fight amid a worsening global pandemic.
Biden led Sanders 61 percent to 23 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting in a contest marked by the complete absence of traditional retail politics. The coronavirus kept both candidates from stepping foot in the Sunshine State in the days leading up to the primary. Fears of the fast-spreading disease also torpedoed primary turnout, deflating what had once been anticipated as a spirited showdown between two popular, diametrically opposed Democrats.
Biden added at least 130 delegates from Florida — the nation’s third biggest primary prize so far — dealing a major blow to Sanders in the all-important delegate race that will decide the nominee. Biden on Tuesday appeared to nearly double his delegate lead on Sanders and is more than halfway to the 1,991 needed to secure the nomination.
The former vice president carried every county in Florida, from the Panhandle to South Beach, making a strong case that he’s the party’s best bet to take on President Donald Trump in the country’s largest and most diverse battleground.
There were no victory parties Tuesday night. No televised hugs or communal commiserating. In this new era of social distancing, Biden stood alone and from his home state of Delaware extended an arm to Sanders’ young supporters and to undecided Americans shaken by the coronavirus crisis.
“I hear you, I know what’s at stake, I know what we have to do," Biden said to Sanders’ movement, then added: “It’s the moments like these that you realize you need to put politics aside and work together as Americans. Coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re Democrat or Republican. It will not discriminate based on national origin, race, gender or your zip code. It will touch people in positions of power as well as the most vulnerable people in our society. We’re all in this together.”
In addition to Florida, Biden won Illinois, another populous state with a big delegate prize, and Arizona. Ohio, originally scheduled to vote Tuesday, delayed its primary due to the coronavirus.
It is now highly improbable Sanders could win the nomination outright, and he would need a seismic shift in the race or an unforeseen disaster — or both — to surpass Biden in delegates.
Further, the conditions to campaign have become increasingly perilous amid a national outbreak. Sanders and Biden canceled their public appearances leading up to Florida’s primary, emerging only for virtual events with supporters and Sunday’s debate, which was held without an audience. Meanwhile, some states have already postponed primaries and election officials around the country face an impossible choice between public safety and forging ahead with democracy.
Sanders has so far declined to relinquish the stage to Biden, urged on by a self-proclaimed victory in the “ideological debate." On Tuesday night, he addressed supporters from behind a desk, ignoring the election results and instead laying out his plan to rescue an economy under siege from the coronavirus.
“In this moment of crisis, it is imperative that we stand together,” Sanders started. He then proposed a $2 trillion relief package that included a $2,000-a-month stipend for every household as long as the crisis lasts, countering the Trump administration’s plan to send most Americans a $1,000 check.
His supporters believe the world pandemic has only further bolstered the case for Medicare for All, Sanders’ signature proposal.
“I believe the health care system is exponentially jacked up and you can see that right now through us not testing” people for coronavirus, said Ken Boggs, 34.
Just like in nearly every contest since South Carolina, a multicultural coalition of Democrats catapulted Biden to victory in Florida. Democrats hope it is a sign that Biden can win back the state that President Barack Obama put in the win column in 2008 and 2012 before it swung red for Trump four years ago.
Trump has since solidified his support in Florida, where he is now a resident. Florida is where Trump held his first political rally after his inauguration and he launched his campaign for re-election from an arena in Orlando. On Tuesday, Florida helped Trump secure the Republican nomination for president once again.
The administration’s delayed response to the coronavirus outbreak and the looming economic uncertainty ahead have changed the political calculus here. A CNN pre-election surveys said 66 percent of Florida Democratic voters cared more about beating Trump than nominating someone who agreed with them on the issues. Asked who they trusted to lead the country through a crisis, 71 percent picked Biden over Sanders.
“Obviously, I think (Biden) is the only one able to beat Trump and I think he looks out more for the people, not just Democrats,” said Angel Trueblood, a 37-year-old Clearwater woman.
When the polls closed Tuesday, it ended one of the most bizarre weeks in a primary season full of unexpected turns.
Not long ago, it seemed Florida could be a major prize in the wide field of contestants still vying for the nomination. But by the time focus shifted to the Sunshine State, only a surging Biden and a diminished Sanders remained.
Then the coronavirus seized global markets, tanking stocks on Wall Street and bringing a recession to the doorsteps of Main Street. Health officials urged people to stay indoors and then demanded shutdowns, first of major events, then of bars.
Biden and Sanders adjusted, too, shifting to digital-only events, foreshadowing what a campaign under coronavirus will look like in the weeks and months to come. Sanders broadcasted a “fireside chat” to 5 million online supporters, his campaign said, while Biden enlisted surrogates to rally volunteers in conference calls.
On TV, Floridians heard former President Barack Obama speak glowingly of Biden and Sanders in commercials that often ran back-to-back. Obama has endorsed neither.
It culminated with an eerie stillness on Election Day — continuing as scheduled because “they voted during the Civil War,” as Gov. Ron DeSantis put it. By Tuesday, more than 1 million people had opted to vote early or by mail out of convenience or to avoid contagion at a polling place. Those who did were often greeted by poll workers in gloves; many left with sanitized hands along with their “I voted” sticker.
Florida has not been kind to Sanders. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in the Sunshine State to stave off the Vermont senator’s comeback bid for the nomination.
Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.