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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks at his primary night election event in Columbia, South Carolina on February 29, 2020 . Joe Biden won the Arizona Democratic primary over Bernie Sanders, giving him a sweep of the three US states which voted on March 17, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Joe Biden easily defeated Senator Bernie Sanders in three major primaries on Tuesday, all but extinguishing Sanders’ chances for a comeback, as anxious Americans turned out to vote amid a series of cascading disruptions from the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden, the former vice-president, won by wide margins in Florida and Illinois and also carried Arizona, sweeping the night and achieving a nearly insurmountable delegate lead. The emphatic outcome could greatly intensify pressure on Sanders to end his campaign and allow Democrats to unify behind Biden as their presumptive nominee.

The routs in Florida and Illinois, two of the biggest prizes on the national map, represented both a vote of confidence in Biden from most Democrats and a blunt rejection of Sanders’ candidacy by the kind of large, diverse states he would have needed to capture to broaden his appeal beyond the ideological left.

Sanders, of Vermont, has struggled since his first presidential campaign in 2016 to win over black voters in larger numbers and to persuade voters who do not share his ethos of democratic socialism that he can be trusted to lead the party into the general election.

In the two biggest states voting Tuesday, Florida and Illinois, Sanders failed: Biden carried Illinois by a wide margin, keeping intact his winning streak in the large Midwestern primary states, after previously winning in Minnesota and Michigan. And the victory in Florida was a particularly sharp repudiation of Sanders: Many moderate and conservative Hispanic voters in the state had recoiled from his past praise of leftist governments in Latin America, including his admiring remarks about certain achievements of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Disruption to electoral calendar

But the day of voting may have been most notable for the disruptions to the electoral calendar. The turmoil caused by the coronavirus upended plans for a primary election in Ohio, where state officials postponed voting scheduled for Tuesday, in an abrupt manoeuvre that barely survived last-minute legal scrutiny. Four other states have also taken steps to delay their primary elections until late this spring, with Maryland on Tuesday becoming the latest to push back voting.

In the states that did vote, there were signs that the virus had dampened voter turnout and that the Democratic presidential campaigns and other party leaders were not engaged Tuesday in the traditional all-out push to drive supporters to the polls. Still, more than 1 million people cast ballots early or by mail, according to election officials in the three states, suggesting that the contests could represent a clear enough statement on the trajectory of the Democratic campaign.

Our goal as a campaign, and my goal as a candidate, is to unify this party and unify this nation.

- Joe Biden, US Democratic presidential contender

It made for an extraordinary day in the country’s electoral history, featuring candidates who could not campaign in public and party officials who were navigating the delicate line between protecting public safety and the civic right to nominate a candidate for the nation’s highest office.

In a gesture to the gravity of the moment, Biden used much of his brief victory address - via a balky livestream from his Wilmington, Delaware, home - to discuss the virus and to reassure the country.

“We’ll get through this together,” said Biden, trying to project a presidential bearing to a rattled nation. He only fleetingly mentioned Tuesday’s results, noting he had “a very good night,” before directly speaking to Sanders’ youthful supporters, a voting group he is trying to court.

“I hear you; I know what’s at stake; I know what we have to do,” Biden said. “Our goal as a campaign, and my goal as a candidate, is to unify this party and unify this nation.”

Praising the “remarkable passion and tenacity” of Sanders and his supporters, the former vice-president said he and the senator disagree on tactics but “share a common vision.”

We must make certain that this health and economic crisis is not another moneymaking opportunity for corporate America and for Wall Street.

- Bernie Sanders, US Democratic presidential contender

Sanders did not deliver a speech about the primary results but earlier in the evening he broadcast his own online address calling for sweeping government action to remedy the economic damage of the crippling virus, including an initiative to give people $2,000 monthly payments for the duration of the crisis.

“We must make certain that this health and economic crisis is not another moneymaking opportunity for corporate America and for Wall Street,” Sanders said, eschewing any mention of the primaries.

Candidate best prepared to handle major crisis

Biden’s victories in all three states relied on the same coalition of voters who have powered his candidacy since his turning-point victory in South Carolina last month: African Americans, political moderates and voters over 50, according to a preelection poll. While Biden routed Sanders in Florida - even besting him with people who described themselves as very liberal - the results were somewhat more competitive in Illinois and Arizona, where Sanders dominated with voters under 45 and with the most liberal Democrats to cast ballots.

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Attendees listen to Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, during a campaign event at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on March 8, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

Voters in all three states said by huge margins that they believed Biden was the candidate best prepared to handle a major crisis.

The virus drove down turnout in some Florida localities, but even with the pandemic, turnout was still higher than in 2016 in a handful of suburban and affluent communities, such as Naples and suburban Jacksonville. Biden won both jurisdictions handily, as he had in other upscale precincts since Super Tuesday, a sign of his strength with the sort of voters who could swing the general election.

Sanders has not indicated that he is likely to stand down as his losses mount, and his advisers indicated in the run-up to Tuesday’s primaries that he was likely to stay in the race and continue collecting as many delegates as he can. He used a debate Sunday to deliver his most focused critique so far of Biden’s policy record and personal judgment, on a range of defining issues for Democratic voters.

But both candidates are still adapting to the halting new pace of the campaign, which is now strictly confined by several factors: a patchwork of travel restrictions and local shutdowns; a near-blackout of news unrelated to the pandemic; and the two aging candidates’ concerns for their own health.