WASHINGTON — Former Vice President Joe Biden, riding a wave of momentum from last week’s Super Tuesday contests, stacked up another series of critical victories on Tuesday that helped widen his lead against Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race to secure enough delegates to clinch the Democratic presidential nomination.
Biden posted early victories in Michigan, Mississippi and Missouri. He also turned states that Sanders won by double-digit margins in 2016 — Washington, North Dakota and Idaho — into competitive races.
Four years ago, Sanders’ insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination was propelled by his post-Super Tuesday victories in four of the six states.
But his showing Tuesday night led the self-declared Democratic socialist to forgo the customary election night speech. Instead he remained at his Burlington, Vermont, home, as campaign surrogates, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Bronx), described the results in somber terms.
"There’s no sugar coating. Tonight’s a tough night,” Ocasio-Cortez told supporters in an Instagram Live post.
Here are some takeaways from Sanders’ difficult night and Biden’s triumphant Tuesday.
Moving past 2016
In 2016, Sanders (I-Vt.) won four of the six states at stake — Michigan, Washington, North Dakota and Idaho — and lost narrowly to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in Missouri.
Voters who backed Sanders in 2016 as a protest against Clinton's "likely coronation" appeared to have reconsidered Sanders' electability against Trump this year, said Jeffrey Grynaviski, a political scientist at Michigan’s Wayne State University.
“Most voters probably placed pretty low odds on Sanders or Trump eventually defeating Clinton, so Democrats looking to cast a protest vote against the likely coronation of an establishment candidate felt safe doing so in the 2016 primary,” Grynaviski said.
“This year, with Trump having already proven he can win, Democrats are far more likely to take their nominee’s electability into account,” he said.
Grynaviski continued: “Tepid Clinton supporters in 2016 felt safe to stay home expecting her to win anyway … This time around, more centrist Democrats will be more motivated to vote, making Biden less likely to underperform his polling numbers than Clinton.”
Sanders, who generally fared better in caucuses in 2016 and this year, had to contend with Washington and Idaho switching to primary systems for 2020.
“In a caucus system, where you have to go someplace and give up some period of time, say two to three hours … that’s a pretty big burden you’re imposing; a lot of people just won’t be able to make it," said Mark Alan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Washington.
Sanders' "supporters are more passionate — they're willing to give up that three hours. With the switch to the primary … it became a close race,” said Smith.
The coronavirus factor
Tuesday's contests offered a glimpse of how the virus that causes COVID-19 is starting to shape the 2020 campaign season.
Biden and Sanders canceled large rallies, citing concerns about the fast-moving coronavirus.
Trump, who typically holds campaign rallies just before each Democratic primary date, held no campaign events leading up to Tuesday’s vote or before last week’s Super Tuesday contests.
In Washington, which Sanders won in 2016, health officials have been struggling to contain the outbreak that had infected over 260 people and killed 24 in the state as of Tuesday night. Neither Biden nor Sanders campaigned recently in the state, which may have hurt their ability to rally some last-minute support.
“That probably disproportionately hurt Sanders just because he tends to attract much bigger crowds to his rallies,” said Cornell Clayton, a political science professor at Washington State University. “He probably will lose out on some of the energy that might have been created by those types of rallies.”
In exit polls conducted by ABC News, NBC News and CNN on Tuesday, the majority of voters said they trusted Biden more in a major crisis.
“My sense is that because there is a fair amount of concern about the coronavirus … that tends to encourage voters to think more cautiously about who is more predictable and more trustworthy, and that likely worked to Biden’s favor,” Clayton said.
Biden, delivering an address Tuesday night in Philadelphia, said he would speak later this week about how he believes the federal government should respond to the virus.
“This whole coronavirus is a matter of presidential leadership,” Biden said.
African American voters boost Biden
Biden’s support among black voters has helped him post substantial margins of victory throughout the primary season, while Sanders struggled to make inroads with a critical bloc of the Democratic Party.
Heading into Tuesday’s vote, Sanders ramped up his outreach to black voters. He launched a campaign ad featuring past footage of former President Barack Obama praising him, bulked up spending on radio ads targeting black voters and announced the endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime civil rights activist.
But those efforts came as Biden received the endorsements of former presidential hopefuls Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
On Tuesday night, Biden continued to dominate among black voters.
In Mississippi, where black voters make up 64% of Democratic primary voters, exit polls showed that Biden won 84% of their vote, compared with Sanders’ 13%.
In Michigan, Biden won 66% of the African American vote, compared with Sanders’ 29%; in Missouri, Biden won 69% to Sanders’ 28%.
“You can’t be a progressive Democratic candidate for president and win without black voters, and Bernie Sanders’ biggest failing is his lack of performance with black voters,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic campaign strategist.
“Biden’s strength with black voters is a big advantage for Biden and a big liability for Bernie Sanders,” Bannon said.