March 11, 2020 / 7:07 AM / Updated an hour ago

Joe Biden calls for unity after big wins in Michigan, three other states

DETROIT (Reuters) - Joe Biden scored decisive primary victories in Michigan and three other U.S. states on Tuesday, taking a big step toward the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and casting doubt on the future of rival Bernie Sanders’ fading White House bid.

The sweeping wins put Biden, 77, on a path to face Republican Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 election, and the former vice president quickly began to look ahead, calling for party unity and making an appeal to supporters of Sanders.

“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.

Sanders, 78, scored a victory in North Dakota, while the last state, Washington, remained too close to call on Wednesday morning, according to Edison. But the 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 democratic socialist senator 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, the former vice president under Barack Obama.

PARTY RALLIES AROUND BIDEN

After the victories, there was a growing sense of inevitability surrounding Biden’s candidacy.

Two of the largest Democratic Super PACS said they were going to begin working for Biden, and his former rival Andrew Yang endorsed him, joining other Democratic candidates that have dropped their own presidential bids and now support Biden, including Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris.

“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, acknowledged the depth of his defeat. “There’s no sugar coating it,” she said on Instagram. “Tonight’s a tough night.”

Michigan was the biggest and 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 be 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 for the nomination, according to Edison Research.

FILE PHOTO: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with his wife Jill at his side during a primary night speech at The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

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,” Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil said on Twitter, adding the group would “do everything we can to help him defeat Donald Trump.”

Reporting by Michael Martina, John Whitesides and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Ginger Gibson and Chris Kahn in Washington; Writing by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Richard Pullin and Bernadette Baum

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