Nothing brought home the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic quite so clearly—or fuzzily—as the pixelated visage that appeared on American television screens to claim a series of Democratic primary victories tonight.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, but he might as well have been in a bunker. Biden’s campaign had set up a podium and a pair of American flags, but the man poised to face President Donald Trump as the Democratic nominee had seemingly been reduced to what felt like a blurry video on a dial-up modem.
Biden swept the night, defeating Senator Bernie Sanders in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona. He was up by nearly 40 points in Florida, where the state’s older population and many Hispanic constituencies were hostile to Sanders’s brand of democratic socialism. But for the first few minutes of his remarks tonight, Biden didn’t even mention the primary contests he won. His mind—everyone’s mind—was on the pernicious viral threat that has infected nearly 6,000 Americans and counting, all but shut down huge states and cities, and decimated the national economy.
“Tackling this pandemic is a national emergency akin to fighting a war,” Biden said. He tried to strike a somber yet reassuring tone, repeatedly offering prayers to the families hit by the virus and thanking the millions of doctors, nurses, first responders, shelf stockers, and grocery-store clerks who are risking their health to keep essential services running.
“Yes, this is a moment where we need our leaders to lead,” he said. “But it is also a moment where the choices and decisions we make as individuals, and collectively as a people, will make a big difference in the severity of the outbreak and the ability of our medical and hospital systems to handle it.
“I know,” he continued, “that we as a people are up to this challenge.”
Turning to the elections, Biden also thanked the voters and poll workers in the three states that held their primaries without mentioning the one that did not. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine made a last-minute decision to postpone the contest because of the coronavirus pandemic. A state judge rejected the governor’s request, but DeWine, a Republican who has been among the nation’s most aggressive leaders in reacting to the outbreak, essentially ignored the ruling and declared the primary postponed because of a public-health emergency.
In the states that voted, the biggest question wasn’t whether Biden would win—polls showed him with a comfortable lead over Sanders in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona—but whether Democrats would risk infection to cast their ballots. Voters did show up, but in Illinois and Florida the Election Day turnout appeared to be significantly lower than it was four years ago. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is governing while quarantined with the virus, said on MSNBC that turnout in the city was “very very light.”
In Chicago, some polling places didn’t open on time, because election workers didn’t show up, and city election officials said turnout early in the day was less than half of what it was during the 2016 primary. While Biden romped in Illinois, Democrats in the state’s Third Congressional District, which covers southwest Chicago and parts of its suburbs, ousted longtime Representative Dan Lipinski in favor of a progressive challenger, Marie Newman. First elected to succeed his father in 2004, Lipinski was one of the last anti-abortion Democrats serving in the House. Newman was mounting her second straight primary challenge to Lipinski and had the support of a wide range of progressive groups and politicians, including Sanders.
Her victory will be of little consolation to Sanders, who is facing more and more pressure to drop out of the Democratic race as Biden racks up what is likely an insurmountable delegate lead. The Vermont senator did not address the results tonight, speaking only to outline his plan to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. As he did a week ago, Biden praised Sanders’s supporters for the “remarkable passion and tenacity” they brought to progressive causes. “Let me say, especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you,” Biden said. “I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do.”
Yet if the night had another winner, it was the system of voting by mail, which set records in both Florida and Illinois as Democrats looked to cast their ballots without standing shoulder to shoulder with their fellow citizens. In Florida, the combination of early voting and vote-by-mail appeared to be so strong that overall turnout was projected to exceed the 1.6 million ballots cast in the 2016 primary.
That clear endorsement of an alternative to in-person voting could have implications in the months ahead for the states that might postpone or alter their primaries in response to the coronavirus outbreak. And it could even offer a boost to some state or federal lawmakers who are advocating an expansion of vote-by-mail if the outbreak is still ongoing as the general election nears this fall.
On a night when the election results were very much a secondary concern, the story wasn’t whom Democrats voted for, but that they voted at all.
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