Updated at 12:10 a.m. March 18
In a primary clouded by the coronavirus pandemic, Illinois voters gave former Vice President Joe Biden another victory in his bid for the Democratic presidential race Tuesday.
Shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., The Associated Press declared that Biden had carried the home state of his former boss, President Barack Obama. With 96% of precincts reporting as of 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, Biden had 59% of the votes.
The victory brought Biden another big step closer toward his party’s nomination, dealing another in a series of setbacks to his main rival in the race, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, Biden commented on his victories Tuesday from his home in Delaware rather than holding campaign-night parties in primary states.
“This pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives and every aspect of this campaign,” Biden said. “My heart goes out to all of you who have lost a loved one.”
He thanked election workers who kept polling places clean.
“You know, it’s important for us to get through this crisis protecting both the public health and our democracy,” he said. “Today, it looks like once again, in Florida and Illinois — we’re still waiting to hear from Arizona — our campaign has had a very good night. We’ve moved closer to securing the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.”
He said he had strong support from diverse groups, namely African Americans, Latinos, labor group, teachers, suburban women, veterans and firefighters.
Looking to shore up support ahead of the November general election, Biden made special mention Tuesday night of younger voters who have favored Sanders: “I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.”
Another blow for Sanders
With the majority of Illinois’ 184 delegates destined for Biden, Tuesday’s results in the largely blue state put Sanders into a much deeper hole and cast further doubts on his viability. Last week, he insisted he would remain in the presidential race despite several devastating primary losses, including in delegate-rich Michigan.
Swept up by Biden’s momentum this month, Democrats including Gov. JB Pritzker, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the overwhelming majority of Illinois’ Democratic congressional delegation sided with the former vice president.
Sanders’ main Illinois campaign backers included his longtime friend, U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the leadership of the 28,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, and Chicago civil rights icon and two-time presidential candidate, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Illinois was the second-largest prize being contested on Tuesday, with a total of 184 delegates at stake, and Biden also won in Florida.
To secure the party’s nomination, the winning candidate has to secure 1,991 delegates by July, when Democrats hold their national convention. Going into Tuesday’s primaries, the NPR/Associated Press delegate tracker had Biden at 890 delegates, with Sanders at 736.
Heading into Tuesday, the Democratic race for president had tilted dramatically in Biden’s favor with his series of wins in the South and in Midwestern battleground states
Michigan and Minnesota, which Sanders had won in his 2016 primary bid for president.
Biden’s momentum made him an early favorite in Illinois and the three other states voting Tuesday, and the four states became must-wins for Sanders, who lost all these states to Hillary Clinton in his 2016 primary bid for president.
Four years ago in Illinois, Sanders ceded victory to Clinton by roughly 40,000 votes out of 2 million cast. Sanders won four of the five collar counties ringing Chicago then, with only Lake County voting in Clinton’s favor. Sanders also carried the overwhelming majority of Downstate counties.
But Clinton made up for that by winning overwhelmingly in Chicago and suburban Cook County, including in three city congressional districts that have high concentrations of African American voters, who sided with her in big numbers.
This go-around, both Biden’s and Sanders’ campaigns had to cancel rallies and fundraisers in Illinois and scrapped get-out-the-vote door-knocking that was the bread and butter of political ground games for generations. Suddenly in vogue were “virtual” no-audience town halls and online and phone-banking and texting operations handled by campaign workers in their homes.
Beyond those logistical difficulties, Sanders faced the added challenge of having to navigate the political terrain in a state he lost by two percentage points in 2016, this time with much of the state’s Democratic political muscle backing Biden.
The impact of COVID-19
In Illinois, Biden and Sanders had been forced to forego handshakes, parades and rafter-shaking rallies as worsening COVID-19 pandemic fears turned traditional campaigning into an avoidance of human contact.
One of the most chaotic elections in Illinois history unfolded despite a statewide shutdown of schools, bars and restaurants, museums and countless workplaces, leaving voting as one of the remaining allowable human interactions during the worst public health scare in more than a century.
Across the city and suburbs, voters warily entered polling places with hand sanitizer in hopes of avoiding the highly contagious and lethal virus while undertaking a quadrennial act of civic duty that typically takes no more than 10 minutes to perform.
An above-average number of election judges appeared to have the same fear, forcing city election authorities to scramble for dozens of last-minute replacements.
Another complicating feature of Tuesday’s vote was shifting polling places. More than 160 precincts had to be moved as host locales, many populated by senior citizens deemed the most vulnerable to the virus, made clear they didn’t want potential, disease-bearing voters entering their confines.
But after heavy promotion of early-voting in Illinois, one silver thread emerged from Tuesday’s election. The messaging from Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker and state election authorities bore results, and about 118,000 residents sought vote-by-mail applications, breaking a record that had stood since World War II.
Barely a week ago, it looked full speed ahead for normal primaries in Illinois, Florida, Georgia and Arizona. But exponentially growing COVID-19 headcounts in each state raised questions about whether the risk of accelerating the spread of the illness outweighed the need for an election. Ohio, Georgia and Louisiana all postponed their elections because of the pandemic.
But here in Illinois, even with mass closures underway, Pritzker insisted Illinois’ primary move forward, arguing that there was no telling whether a primary election might ever happen here if residents are forced to remain homebound for weeks or months as a last-ditch bulwark against COVID-19.
“This is the right thing to do,” Pritzker said Monday, even as he ordered a ban on public gatherings of 50 or more people. “Our democracy needs to go on.”
Dave McKinney covers state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.