Joe Biden scored a decisive victory in Florida’s Democratic presidential primary, solidifying his status as the frontrunner to take on Donald Trump in November and putting pressure on rival Bernie Sanders to exit the race.
Democrats voted in three states on Tuesday — Florida, Illinois and Arizona — even as public health officials clamped down on large gatherings and encouraged Americans to stay at home to prevent the transmission of coronavirus.
With 74 per cent of precincts reporting in Florida, Mr Biden had 61 per cent of the vote, compared with 23 per cent for Mr Sanders.
The former vice-president’s strong performance will bolster calls from some Democrats for Mr Sanders to concede and find a way of uniting his coalition of predominantly younger voters behind his opponent ahead of what is certain to be a bitterly fought general election where voter turnout could prove crucial.
Ohio had also been scheduled to hold a primary on Tuesday, but the state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, ordered the closing of all polling stations late Monday, citing the “unacceptable health risk” that the coronavirus posed to poll workers and voters.
Primaries that were due to be held in Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky and Maryland in March and April have also been postponed. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said on Tuesday that the remaining primary states should make voting “easier and safer” by using mail-in ballots and expanding in-person voting hours to reduce queues.
Mr Biden’s victory in Florida came one week after he secured key wins over Mr Sanders in five states: Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Idaho and Washington state.
Despite disappointing finishes in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Mr Biden re-energised his campaign late last month with a nearly 30-point victory in South Carolina, which propelled him to a string of wins on “Super Tuesday” on March 3 and again last week.
He currently leads Mr Sanders, the Vermont senator, in the delegate count with 1027 delegates, compared with Mr Sanders’ 793, according to the Associated Press. One needs 1,991 delegates to secure the party’s presidential nomination.
Mr Biden, 77, a moderate, also maintains a significant lead over Mr Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, in nationwide opinion polls, commanding 56 per cent of support among likely Democratic voters compared with Mr Sanders’ 35 per cent, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average.
Mr Biden, who was vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama, has enjoyed overwhelming support from African-American voters. He has also managed to build a diverse coalition that includes centrist white voters in suburban areas, whose backing was key to Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm elections, when the party regained control of the House of Representatives.
He has staked his campaign in part on his ability to win over moderates and carry the Democrats to success in “down ballot” congressional, state and local races in November. Mr Sanders, 78, has argued that he is better positioned to energise younger voters and increase turnout.
In a live televised debate on Sunday night, held in a CNN studio in Washington DC with no live audience in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus, Mr Sanders argued that while that while Mr Biden was leading in the delegate count, his campaign was winning the “ideological” and “generational” struggle
“If I lose this thing, Joe wins, Joe, I will be there for you,” said Mr Sanders. “But I have my doubts about how you win a general election against Trump — who will be a very, very tough opponent — unless you have energy, excitement [and] the largest voter turnout in history.”
The latest RealClearPolitics polling average shows voters favour Mr Biden over Mr Trump by more than a six-point margin, and favour Mr Sanders over Mr Trump by five points.