Former vice president Joe Biden scored at least four more primary victories Tuesday, including handily defeating Bernie Sanders in Michigan in a severe blow to the Vermont senator’s campaign that underscored how drastically the Democratic presidential contest has shifted in less than two weeks.
Seizing firm control of the race, Biden began turning toward the general election by reaching out to Sanders’ voters in his victory speech in an attempt to unify Democrats.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said in Philadelphia. “We share a common goal and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump. We’ll defeat him together. We’re going to bring this nation together.”
Sanders surprisingly decided not to speak publicly Tuesday night, a sign of the magnitude of his losses.
Four years ago, Sanders upset Hillary Clinton in Michigan in a win that propelled his insurgent bid to a new level of legitimacy. But this year, with Democrats desperate to oust President Trump, voters in the key Midwestern battleground state flocked to Biden as the establishment candidate they deemed a safer choice than a self-described democratic socialist.
With 80 percent of Michigan precincts reporting, Biden had 53 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Sanders. The victory in the biggest prize of the six contests on Tuesday helped widen Biden’s delegate lead.
“Although there’s a way to go, it looks like we’re going to have another good night,” Biden said late Tuesday, after repeating a line he’s used often lately about his resurgent campaign being for all those who have been “knocked down . . . counted out, left behind.”
“It’s more than a comeback in my view, our campaign, it’s a comeback for the soul of this nation,” he said. “This campaign is taking off and I believe we’re going to do well from this point on.”
Just hours before polls closed, both the Biden and Sanders campaigns canceled rallies scheduled in Cleveland amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Ohio holds its primary next Tuesday.
Biden also won resounding victories in Mississippi and Missouri, states where he enjoyed strong support from Black voters. Contests in North Dakotaand Washington state were too close to call late Tuesday. Still, Biden’s victories in the South and Midwest continued a dramatic turnaround for a campaign that was on life support after poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But a big win in South Carolina on Feb. 29 gave Biden a surge of momentum. He won 10 of 14 contests on Super Tuesday last week, giving him 670 delegates, about 100 more than Sanders heading into Tuesday’s contests, according to the Associated Press. The other top candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, dropped out in recent days, turning the race into a two-man contest.
Michigan was a key test in part because it looms as an important state for Democrats in the fall. Trump’s narrow win there four years ago on the strength of working-class angst helped him win election. But in the 2018 congressional midterms, two moderate Democrats flipped Republican House seats in Michigan, signaling an opening for Democrats in the 2020 general election if they chose a candidate who can appeal to moderates and Republicans.
Michigan was seen as Sanders’ best hope to slow Biden’s momentum. Sanders canceled a Friday stop in Mississippi to focus his time and resources on Michigan, which awarded 125 delegates on Tuesday, the largest haul of the six voting states. In all, 352 delegates were up for grabs.
Michigan voters have a complicated relationship with the two candidates. In 2016, voters backed Sanders in part because of his opposition to trade deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement, which hurt the local auto industry. But many in Michigan also felt loyal to Biden because the Obama administration oversaw federal bailouts of that same industry after the 2008 financial crisis.
Sanders appeared over the weekend in Michigan flanked by key surrogates, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and he warned voters that turnout would be key to a victory there.
Yet early data on Tuesday indicated that young people did not vote at the level needed to deliver Sanders a win.
With Sanders’ loss in Michigan, it becomes much more difficult for him to overtake Biden. The former vice president appears to have an edge in key upcoming primaries, in states including Florida and Georgia.
To win the party’s nomination on the first ballot at this summer’s convention, a candidate needs a majority of the nearly 4,000 Democratic delegates – at least 1,991. Going into Tuesday, a little more than a third of the delegates had been allocated, according to the Associated Press.
Next Tuesday, another huge batch of delegates will be available: a total of 577 from primaries in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, and Ohio. The biggest day left in the Democratic race doesn’t come until April 28, when 663 delegates will be on the line with New York and Pennsylvania among six states holding primaries, along with Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Biden’s Super Tuesday wins in Massachusetts, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, and elsewhere also blessed his once-struggling campaign with an influx of cash — $22 million in five days, according to his staff. That has allowed them to expand advertising.
Biden also has continued to receive key endorsements as the Democratic Party establishment rallies around him, getting the backing in recent days of former rivals California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker as well as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
While Sanders has struggled to win over Black voters, Biden’s strong support among that demographic helped him win in Michigan as well, because Black voters there also make up a large share of the Democratic electorate.
The audience at Biden’s rally in Tougaloo College last weekend was the most energetic of the weekend and the crowd was predominantly Black. Voters were quick to cite Biden’s support for Barack Obama and track record on civil rights as reasons why they were supporting him.
Vern Gavin, 69, said he believed Sanders was a good candidate with a strong platform but didn’t think this was his time or that he was the best person to face Trump. He saw Biden as the most “electable choice.”
'I’m in line with Bernie, but I think he’s a little bit over the top for this [presidential] campaign," he said.
Kim Williams, 39, a Tougaloo alumni, said she believed Sanders was “outdated” and wouldn’t get much accomplished. She wasn’t concerned some found Biden to be prone to gaffes.
“I think that’s what really makes him special,” she said of Biden. “He has the most support because his record speaks for itself.”