DETROIT (Reuters) – Bernie Sanders scored his first victory in Tuesday’s Democratic U.S. presidential nominating contests when North Dakota was called in his favor, but the lone win was unlikely to blunt rival Joe Biden’s momentum after a strong night for the former vice president.
Biden notched decisive primary victories in Michigan and three other states on Tuesday, taking a big step toward the nomination and casting doubt on the future of Sanders’ fading White House bid.
The sweeping wins put Biden, 77, on a path to face Republican Donald Trump, 73, in the Nov. 3 election, and he quickly began to look ahead, calling for party unity and making an appeal to supporters of Sanders, a 78-year-old U.S. senator from Vermont.
“We share a common goal, and together we are going to defeat Donald Trump,” Biden said in Philadelphia, thanking Sanders and his supporters for their energy and passion.
Biden’s wins in Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi and Idaho were powered by a broad coalition of supporters, including women, African Americans, those with and without college degrees, older voters, union members and all but the very liberal, according to exit polls by Edison Research.
Edison called North Dakota for Sanders around 7:15 a.m. CDT (1215 GMT) on Wednesday, after results showed he had received 53% of the vote to Biden’s 40%. The last state, Washington, remained too close to call on Wednesday morning, according to Edison.
Tuesday’s results narrowed the path forward for Sanders, who had hoped for an upset win in Michigan, which had the lion’s share of delegates available on Tuesday, to keep his White House hopes alive.
The loss in a state Sanders had won during his 2016 White House campaign will heighten pressure on the senator, a self-styled democratic socialist, to exit the race and help Democrats prepare for a bruising campaign against Trump.
With 99% of precincts reporting, Biden had 53% of the vote in Michigan, well ahead of Sanders’ 37%. He won Missouri and Mississippi with 60% and 81% of the vote, respectively.
Sanders, who returned home to Vermont on Tuesday night, did not make a public statement after his losses, a departure from his usual practice on primary nights.
Voters across the states said on Tuesday they trusted Biden more to handle a major crisis by roughly 2-to-1 over Sanders, exit polls showed, a possible sign the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak helped boost Biden’s appeal as a steady and experienced hand.
Both candidates canceled planned rallies on Tuesday night in response to the outbreak, citing recommendations from public health officials to avoid assembling large indoor crowds.
Biden’s campaign also canceled a Thursday get-out-the-vote event in Florida, one of four states that will hold nominating contests next week. Biden said he would instead deliver an address on Thursday on the U.S. coronavirus response in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
“This whole coronavirus is a matter of presidential leadership,” said Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama.
PARTY RALLIES AROUND BIDEN
After the victories, there was a growing sense of inevitability surrounding Biden’s candidacy.
Former rival Andrew Yang endorsed him, joining other Democratic candidates who have dropped their presidential bids and now support Biden, including Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
“The math says Joe is our prohibitive nominee. We need to bring the party together,” Yang said on CNN. One of Sanders’ most influential supporters, liberal U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, acknowledged the depth of his defeat. “There’s no sugarcoating it,” she wrote on Instagram. “Tonight’s a tough night.”
Michigan was the biggest, most competitive of the six states that held nominating contests on Tuesday. It is also a crucial battleground that Trump narrowly and unexpectedly won in 2016, which along with wins in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin propelled his ascent to the White House.
The Biden wins could be too much for Sanders to overcome, with the contest shifting to large states including Florida, Ohio and Georgia, where Biden is seen as a clear favorite.
By the end of March, about two-thirds of the nearly 4,000 delegates to July’s Democratic nominating convention will have been allocated.
Biden had won 158 delegates to Sanders’ 100 by Wednesday morning, giving him an overall lead of 786-645 in the race for the 1,991 delegates needed to win the nomination outright, according to Edison Research.
Biden’s big margin of victory on Tuesday – including a stunning 66-point victory in Mississippi – was fueled by strong support from the state’s African-American voters.
In Washington state, Biden and Sanders were in a virtual tie, with more than two-thirds of the votes counted.
“The math is now clear. Joe Biden is going to be the Democratic nominee,” Guy Cecil chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, said on Twitter, adding that the fundraising group would “do everything we can to help him defeat Donald Trump.”
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