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5 primary takeaways: Joe Biden is Democrats' antidote

Joe Biden's surge toward the Democratic presidential nomination rolled on with a dominating victory in Florida, the largest delegate prize in Tuesday's primaries, and wins in Illinois and Arizona.

Takeaways from Biden's latest victories:

BIDEN'S SURGE BECOMES A WAVE

Biden continues one of the most remarkable presidential campaign turnarounds in U.S. history.

His campaign always said he didn't have to win Iowa or New Hampshire, because his base was in more racially diverse states that followed, a theory that often seemed more like an excuse than a strategy. But even that plan didn't foresee the kind of catapult he has managed since blowing out the field in South Carolina on Feb. 29.

The former vice president has put together broad coalitions of Democratic primary voters: African Americans, white college-educated suburbanites, city dwellers of all demographics, rural and small-town voters who haven't yet defected to Republicans (or who might be returning from the GOP).

Certainly, it may be as much about President Donald Trump as anything else — Biden's "electability" case coming to fruition. But Biden's read on the electorate shouldn't be discounted. During a primary campaign whose narrative was dominated by Bernie Sanders and other candidates' ideological push for a progressive national makeover, Biden held to his core belief that 2020 was most fundamentally about re-establishing a sense of normalcy, then moving forward, “results,” not “revolution.”

Biden noted in a brief address, livestreamed late Tuesday, that Sanders and his supporters “have shifted the fundamental conversation in this country” with the Vermont senator's two presidential campaigns. But the primary results offered the latest evidence that Biden is who and what more Democrats actually want in the Oval Office.

SANDERS' SINKING FEELING

Sanders' campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, said Wednesday that his candidate “is going to be having conversations with supporters to assess his campaign."

But Shakir also suggested that Sanders is in no hurry to make any decisions about leaving the race, noting in a statement, “The next primary contest is at least three weeks away.”

It continues a pattern for the senator of not directly addressing the future of his presidential bid, which has the money to continue but now trails so badly in delegates that his path to the nomination has narrowed almost to nonexistent.

Sanders spoke for 20 minutes via livestream Tuesday night, before the results were even in, and did not once mention the election. Instead, he tried to project calm as he outlined his coronavirus response plan.

It's become an odd role for a candidate whose entire brand has been his defiant call for a political revolution.

Biden’s latest drubbing of Sanders comes as the half of the states yet to vote scramble to find a safe way to cast ballots during the coronavirus outbreak.

It’s unclear how robust future primary elections may be. With the entire country under virtual house arrest it’s impossible for Sanders to recreate the massive rallies that have powered his presidential bid. Every time he criticizes Biden, Sanders angers the majority of the party’s voters who have backed the former vice president and risks sowing dissent before the general election.

Even on the issue of health care, the cornerstone of his campaign, Sanders is losing. Florida Democrats thought Biden would be better than Sanders on health care by a significant margin, according to AP VoteCast surveys of the electorate. Voters in Arizona and Illinois were about evenly divided between the two candidates on health care.

In 2016, Sanders fought on after it was impossible for him to defeat Hillary Clinton, helping build enough political muscle to pull the party leftward. But Biden’s in a stronger position than Clinton was and the socially distanced world of 2020 is a political lifetime away from the time before Trump’s presidency in 2016. It’s unclear what Sanders is doing right now.

BIDEN'S ONLY OBVIOUS GAP: THE YOUNGEST VOTERS

Biden’s coalition on Tuesday again was wide. AP VoteCast data showed he continued his clear advantages among black voters in Florida and Illinois. Additionally, he appeared to win women, voters over 45 and moderates and conservatives. He showed strength in suburbs and small towns and across religious identities. In Florida, Biden won 51% of liberals.

If there’s a gap for Biden, it remains with voters under 30. Sanders maintained the edge in Florida and won about two-thirds of that group in Illinois. That youngest slice of the electorate has never been a force in primaries. But battleground states are won on the margins in November, and the 77-year-old establishment favorite tacitly acknowledged Tuesday that he still has work to do. Biden praised Sanders' backers for their “remarkable passion and tenacity.” Then he turned to Americans young enough to be his grandchildren. “Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Sen. Sanders: 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 for president is to unify this party, and then to unify the nation.”

BIDEN IMPROVING WITH LATINOS

Tuesday was a test of whether Biden could bounce back among another crucial Democratic group where he has lagged Sanders in the primary — Latinos. And he certainly did.

Biden handily won Latinos in Florida, where they comprised 16% of the Democratic primary vote. According to AP VoteCast, Biden won just over half of Cubans, a group where Sanders was believed especially weak due to his previous warm statements about Fidel Castro. But Biden did even better among Puerto Ricans, winning about 60% of a group which the Sanders campaign hoped would be their strongest segment of the Latino population in the state.

Sanders has racked up his biggest margins among Latinos in California and Texas, states with predominantly Mexican American populations. But in Illinois, home to many Mexican Americans, the two men were competitive among Latino voters, with Sanders holding a slight advantage. They also split about evenly between the two candidates in border state Arizona, according to AP VoteCast.

Resentment has lingered among some Democratic Latinos over the Obama administration’s high rate of deportations, and it was unclear whether Biden could rally the demographic in November. Tuesday’s results show he still has a solid chance of doing so.

CORONAVIRUS DOESN'T THREATEN LEGITIMACY OF RESULTS

The Biden campaign had been confident heading into Tuesday but still quietly concerned that Sanders or his supporters could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome if the quasi-national shutdown over the coronavirus depressed turnout to abysmal levels.

He won convincingly enough in the three states to rebut any widespread doubt. To be sure, in-person voting on Tuesday almost certainly was lower than it would have been otherwise in Arizona, Florida and Illinois.

But early in-person and mail balloting ensures that the final turnout on Tuesday was at least in the neighborhood of a usual competitive presidential primary, even if the states didn't shatter records like several states did on Super Tuesday.

As an example, going into Tuesday, Florida had processed about 140,000 more mail-in ballots than in 2016, while the early in-person count outpaced 2016 by more than 70,000 voters. Those numbers didn't include more than 450,000 mail ballots that were distributed to voters but not yet returned and counted. Illinois, a state that doesn’t typically rely as heavily on early and mail voting as Florida, likely suffered much more because of the in-person dip.

Turnout in Florida’s Democratic primary is higher than it was four years ago, when 1.7 million voters cast ballots. This year, turnout is on pace to approach 2 million.

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