TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – Former Vice President Joe Biden was coasting to an apparent victory in Arizona’s Democratic presidential preference election Tuesday, extending his delegate lead and leaving Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders a very steep climb to their party’s nomination.
With 381,000 of 1.3 million ballots tallied, the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office showed Biden with a 42% to 29% lead over his more progressive rival in the Grand Canyon State, where 67 delegates to the national convention are at stake in the presidential preference election, Arizona’s version of a primary.
Those numbers did not include Pima County, home to about 1 million of the state’s 7.1 million resident, where Biden held a 44% to 29% lead, according to the Pima County Elections Department. Republicans did not hold a primary, opting instead to give all GOP delegates to President Donald Trump.
From his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden highlighted his projected victories in Florida and Illinois and recognized his remaining rival’s contributions to the campaign.
“Senator Sanders and I may disagree on tactics, but we share a common vision — for the need to provide affordable health care for all Americans to reducing income inequality to taking on climate change,” Biden said. “Senator Sanders and his supporters have brought remarkable passion and tenacity to these issues, and together, they have shifted the fundamental conversation in the country.”
The former Delaware senator focused much of his election night livestream on coronavirus, which has the nation on virtual lockdown but did not stop the elections in four states Tuesday. He thanked poll workers and others who kept the election going despite the risk of infection from coronavirus and called for unity generally.
“This is a moment for each of us to see and believe in the best in every one of us,” he said. “To look out for our neighbor. To understand the fear and stress so many are feeling. To care for the elderly couple down the street … To believe in one another.”
Early in the day, the Arizona Democratic Party predicted turnout would crush the 2016 election, when 468,461 ballots were cast, 33% coming from early voters. This year, about 480,000 early ballots were cast – 39% of Democratic voters and more than the entire 2016 turnout, party spokesman Matt Grodsky said in an email.
“As we expected, the early ballot surge has allowed us to beat 2016 voter turnout levels,” Grodsky said. “Democrats are energized and determined to beat this president in November.”
The results are not surprising given Arizona’s demographics and a recent Monmouth University poll. Biden led Sanders in that survey 55% to 26% among Arizona’s 82% white majority. The poll also showed Biden besting Trump 46% to 43% while Sanders would top the president 44% to 43%.
In Tucson, a coronavirus-wary Sanders campaign left town four days ago when paid staff turned over the office keys to local group Tucson for Bernie, said volunteer Christina Beach, 51, who came from Oakland, California, this week to keep the campaign alive.
“I can’t blame them,” Beach said. “It wasn’t about money. They didn’t want to endanger people.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week gave Biden a 59% to 41% advantage over Sanders among Democratic voters nationally and 55% to 45% when the sample included independents – who account for about one-third of Arizona voters. Gabbard registered 3% support in the poll taken in the days after Super Tuesday.
About half of the Sanders supporters in that survey (51%) said they would vote for Biden in the general election if he is the party’s nominee, while 12% would vote for a third party, 8% for Trump and 28% were unsure or would not vote.
Sanders voters interviewed in Tucson on Tuesday mirrored that sentiment.
Pam Smith, 65, and a retired teacher, voted for Sanders because she feels Democrats have become too centrist in recent decades and she wants a more progressive government. Smith will back Biden, however, if he is nominated, she said.
“I don’t want to vote for him, but I will,” she said.
Laura Milkins, a Tucson performance artist and art instructor at a local community college, agreed. She would love to have a more left-leaning government but will accept a more centrist candidate if she must in the general election in November.
“I’m going to vote. I always vote, and I am not going to vote for Donald Trump,” said Milkins, 48.
Barbara Magee, 68, won’t have to hold her nose to vote for Biden – she’s backed him all along, she said, largely because of his friendship with former President Barack Obama and his experience on the world stage.
Sanders backers who threaten to skip out on the general election if their candidate doesn’t win are a “real concern” to her. They need to get onboard no matter who the candidate is, Magee said.
“If they want a chance at real leadership in this country, then I hope they would realize that and not take their marbles and go home,” she said.
An Arizona poll published last week by the Phoenix research firm OH Predictive Insights shows Biden with a virtual lock among likely Democratic voters. In the telephone poll conducted March 3-4, 45% said they support Biden while just 17% back Sanders, a crushing lead that easily clears the poll’s 4.9% margin of error.
Biden held a similar lead among men, women, rural, white and Hispanic voters. Sanders’ only lead over Biden in the survey – a statistical tie – was among voters younger than 54, where the Vermont senator garnered 30% to Biden’s 29%.
Polls closed at 7 p.m. across the state, where the eventual nominee will vie against Trump for 11 Electoral College votes.