Only a stunning, mathematically improbable twist of fate can stop Joe Biden from leading the Democratic Party into this fall’s presidential election against Donald Trump.
He has now unquestionably cemented his status as the likely nominee.
That’s because Biden proved dominant in a set of primaries Tuesday that represented rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’s best hope of reversing the race’s momentum.
In short, the Vermont senator needed a Joe Biden-style comeback to stop Joe Biden.
He didn’t come close.
The former vice-president easily won in Michigan, the one remaining big state that voted for Sanders in the 2016 primaries. He dominated elsewhere, and now the race moves to states considered even friendlier to Biden such as Florida and Georgia.
Biden ended the night with a lead over Sanders of about 10 per cent in convention delegates, and he racked up endorsements from previously neutral groups and individuals while consolidating his control of the party.
WATCH | Joe Biden delivers subdued victory speech:
There was no celebratory victory rally, however.
In fact, Biden’s speech was downright sombre and pointedly devoid of pomp. It aimed to be presidential rather than triumphal, as Biden shifted his focus beyond the primaries.
On a day of escalating anxiety across the country, when both his and Sanders’s rallies in Cleveland had to be cancelled amid a coronavirus outbreak, Biden spoke to a small audience in Philadelphia.
He began by announcing plans for a policy speech on the health crisis, then went on to praise his primary rival.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his supporters for their tireless energy and their passion. We share a common goal — and together we’ll defeat Donald Trump,” Biden said.
The reason Biden can start focusing on the general election? He’s just won by about 15 points in the closest thing Sanders had to a must-win state, Michigan.
Biden won black voters there, and white voters, and older voters, and blew past Sanders in the electorally critical suburbs of Detroit.
All Democrats will find some reason to cheer the results in Michigan, a key general-election swing state. Voter participation surged compared to the 2016 primaries, and Biden dominated in the bellwether counties that helped Trump win the presidency in 2016.
Elsewhere Tuesday, Biden won Mississippi by about a 66 per cent margin and Missouri by 26 per cent. He took Idaho too, where Sanders had easily won in caucus meetings four years ago.
In another setback for Sanders from 2016, the candidates were neck-and-neck early Wednesday in Washington state, where Sanders easily won caucuses last time but which has, like Idaho, moved to a primary election format.
Sanders made no public remarks Tuesday night.
But the shifting momentum was palpable among Democrats. Several party groups that had remained neutral in the race hailed Biden as the de facto nominee, or announced plans to spend money on ads for him.
Former candidate Andrew Yang — a Sanders supporter in 2016 — said it was time to back the eventual nominee.
“I hereby am endorsing Joe Biden,” Yang said on CNN, where he’s been an analyst since he ended his own campaign.
“Bernie was an inspiration for me — [he] inspired my run. But the math says Joe is our prohibitive nominee. … We need to come together as a party, starting tonight.”
Sanders and Biden to debate Sunday
A number of Sanders supporters posting online promised to keep fighting. Campaign officials noted that more than half the convention delegates are still up for grabs. Biden still has less than half the delegates he needs to win the nomination.
Sanders will have a clear opportunity to damage Biden in a few days — if he wants to. The candidates are scheduled for their first one-on-one debate of the campaign Sunday.
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An aggressive performance there would allow Sanders to test a hypothesis being floated by his most ardent backers that the gaffe-prone Biden has lost a step intellectually and would blunder his way through the general election.
Some of those Sanders supporters pointed to an incident Tuesday where Biden swore at a factory worker who confronted him over gun control.
Biden’s team said it welcomed the attention to the incident, saying it cast him favourably.
It’s now up to Sanders to decide how aggressively he wants to keep fighting. The headwinds in his face are considerable.
Tough road for Sanders, says analyst
To catch and overtake Biden, he now needs to dominate in states where that prospect appears unlikely — the terrain is far less favourable than Michigan.
Unlike Michigan, Sanders lost the states voting the rest of this month by an average margin of 26 percentage points against Hillary Clinton four years ago.
In the largest of those upcoming states, Florida, polls show him getting trounced.
Kelly Dietrich, founder of a Democratic organization that’s neutral in these primaries, said things are about to get tougher for Sanders.
“I think he’ll stay in the race for a while,” said Dietrich, who founded the National Democratic Training Committee, which helps prepare Democrats for campaigns.
“He is authentic and believes what he talks about. We are lucky to have a champion like that.
“But his path to the nomination gets a lot more difficult. … That hill gets a lot, lot steeper.”