WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Joe Biden was headed to a sweeping victory over Bernie Sanders in Florida’s Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday, moving him closer to clinching the nomination to face President Donald Trump in November’s election.
Biden held a lead of nearly 40 percentage points over Sanders with more than half the precincts reporting in Florida, one of three states voting on Tuesday. Television networks and Edison Research projected he would easily beat Sanders.
Polls had closed in Illinois but there was no immediate projection. Arizona was still voting.
Biden, the former vice president, hopes big victories on Tuesday will help him amass an unassailable advantage over Sanders in the race to choose a challenger to the Republican Trump in the Nov. 3 election, before the race enters an extended hiatus with no voting scheduled for weeks.
Florida, a traditional battleground in the general election that Trump won by 1.2 percentage points in 2016, is the biggest prize of the day with 219 delegates.
Edison Research polls found a majority of voters in all three states trusted Biden more than Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, to handle a major crisis, Edison Research polls showed.
The polls also found about half of voters in Illinois were “very concerned” about the potential effects of the outbreak, which caused Ohio to cancel its planned nominating contest on Tuesday.
Gloved poll workers and hand sanitizer dispensers met voters in the three states amid a health crisis that has upended the campaign and shut down much of American life as in other parts of the world.
Sanders, 78, who trailed Biden, 77, in opinion polls in all three states, could face renewed pressure to end his bid if he loses badly on Tuesday. Many Democrats do not want a repeat of 2016, when they believe his long, bitter primary battle with Hillary Clinton played a role in her upset loss to Trump, 73.
Because of the coronavirus, Edison Research, which normally conducts exit polls, spoke by telephone to early voters and others who planned to vote.
The polls found seven of 10 voters in Florida and six of 10 in Illinois and Arizona trusted Biden more than Sanders in a crisis.
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They also found seven of 10 voters in all three states believed Biden had the best chance of beating Trump, a crucial factor in a Democratic race where electability has been the top priority for many voters.
There were signs coronavirus concerns had hurt turnout on Tuesday, though officials also noted that early voting and voting by mail had surged. That could still boost overall turnout above the levels in the Democratic primary in 2016, the last year Americans voted for president.
Ohio also had been scheduled to vote on Tuesday, but Governor Mike DeWine said public health concerns made in-person voting too dangerous and postponed the election to June 2.
“Our goal is that no one will have to choose between their constitutional rights and risking their health,” DeWine told a news conference on Tuesday, adding that going ahead with the vote would have been “a real, real disaster.”
BIDEN IN CHARGE
Biden has taken command of the Democratic race in the past two weeks, scoring victories in 16 of the last 21 state contests and building a lead of roughly 150 delegates over Sanders in the chase for the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at July’s Democratic convention.
Several states have postponed their Democratic presidential primaries, including Georgia, which had been scheduled to vote on March 24; Louisiana, on April 4; Maryland, on April 28; and Kentucky, on May 19.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged the remaining primary states not to postpone their voting but to focus on ways to make it safer such as voting by mail and extending early voting hours.
Officials in the three states that voted on Tuesday had assured the public it was safe despite fears about the coronavirus, which has dramatically altered American life, forced the campaigns to abandon public events and prompted other states to postpone future elections.
Tracy Finger, 53, wore a face mask as he cast a vote for Sanders in Miami on Tuesday. He said he expected the pandemic would offer the eventual Democratic nominee a political boost given the Trump administration’s response, which has drawn criticism for a lack of urgency.
Armed with hand sanitizer in his jacket pocket, Bill Monnin, a 60-year-old bartender who was recently laid off because of a lack of business due to the coronavirus, went to cast his ballot in Chicago.
“It’s important, it’s our responsibility,” he said as he walked into Kilmer Elementary School on Chicago’s north side. “It’s not an impossible situation yet. You don’t have to stay home.”
(Graphic: Delegate tracker and results link: here).
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