Amid the economic and social turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Democratic presidential primary marched on Tuesday as three states (admittedly one less than expected) went to the polls. And as expected, former Vice President Joe Biden scored decisive victories in all three, further distancing himself from Sen. Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination.
In Florida, Biden was crushing Sanders 62 percent to 23 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting.1 That was almost exactly the margin that Biden was expected to win by, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, although the vote shares were a bit different — the forecast put Biden at 67 percent and Sanders at 28 percent in the average preelection simulation.
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: How COVID-19 Affected Tuesday’s Vote
With 98 percent of precincts reporting in Illinois, Biden had 59 percent of the vote, while Sanders had 36 percent. The average FiveThirtyEight forecast in the Land of Lincoln gave Biden 66 percent and Sanders 30 percent, so it was Sanders who actually outperformed expectations. And in a down-ballot surprise, progressive Marie Newman defeated centrist Rep. Dan Lipinski in the Democratic primary in the 3rd Congressional District — a bright spot for progressives in Illinois.
And finally, with 69 percent of the expected vote counted, 42 percent of Democrats in Arizona had voted for Biden, while 30 percent had voted for Sanders. So far that’s a significantly smaller margin than the 25-point Biden win forecasted by our model, but we shouldn’t make any comparisons yet, as it’s still early in the vote-counting process. Even under normal circumstances, around 80 percent of Arizonans cast their ballots via mail, which means results can take several days to be finalized. There is reason to think Sanders could tighten the margin in the later count: Young voters and Latino voters, two groups that have made up Sanders’s base thus far, are among those who tend to mail their ballots at the last minute. However, there is no doubt that Biden will win Arizona — both ABC and the Associated Press called the state for him.
Expected though they may have been, Biden’s victories in these three states are still significant because of the large number of delegates they are worth: Florida, with 219 pledged delegates, is the fourth-most delegate-rich state on the primary calendar; Illinois, with 155 pledged delegates, is sixth. So far, ABC News is projecting that Biden has won 227 delegates while Sanders has won 81 (133 are still to be determined). That gives Biden a strong 297-delegate lead in the race overall. That might not seem insurmountable, given that there are still 1,668 pledged delegates to award (plus those from yesterday that are still unallocated), but think about it this way: Sanders would need to win 68 percent of the remaining delegates to claim a majority — yet he is currently almost 20 points behind Biden in our national polling average.
Of course, Biden already had a greater than 99 in 100 (99 percent) chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates, per our forecast, so yesterday doesn’t really change the state of the race. The real headline may have been the way the elections were affected by the coronavirus. In Florida, some polling places opened late because so few poll workers showed up to work out of fear of the virus; in Illinois, understaffed polling places conscripted untrained volunteers into service, and some relocated polling places lacked the proper equipment to process voters, leading to long lines at other voting locations.
And while we can’t isolate the effect of the coronavirus on turnout — the diminishing competitiveness of the Democratic race may also have contributed — turnout was slightly down from 2016 levels in Florida, and it fell by even more in Illinois. (The fact that so many ballots are left to count in Arizona means we cannot calculate its turnout rate this early.) Around 1.54 million Democratic ballots have been counted so far in Illinois, for a turnout rate of 17 percent of the voting eligible population; in 2016, that number was 23 percent. Meanwhile, in Florida, a preliminary total of 1.73 million people voted in the Democratic primary, which computes to a VEP turnout rate of 11 percent; in 2016, it was 12 percent. That’s obviously not as big a drop as in Illinois, but it’s still notable since 2020 turnout topped 2016’s in almost every other state that has voted so far this year.
The turnout drop may have been especially stark in Illinois because it is more reliant on in-person voting than Florida. Indeed, both states saw an increase in the number of early or mail votes but a decrease in the number of in-person Election Day votes — which, given the pandemic, makes sense. Election Day turnout at polling places in Chicago was a fraction of what it was in the 2016 primary, but the city also received more absentee ballot requests and early votes than any previous presidential primary. And according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, the state likely set a record for most early and mail votes in a presidential primary.
Meanwhile, in Florida, 658,234 Democrats had returned their mail ballots as of Tuesday morning2 — already an increase of 27 percent from 2016. And 438,949 Florida Democrats voted early, which was up 19 percent from 2016. However, it looks like Democrats cast only about 500,000 votes on Election Day itself, which would be down 40 percent from 2016.
Basically, the data from yesterday’s elections suggests that, in the face of the coronavirus threat, many voters simply traded voting in person for voting early or by mail. As long as the pandemic lingers, this could become a new normal for elections.