Decision 2020: The “pandemic primary”

UPDATED 3/18 AM to account for Alabama’s moving its runoff from March 31 to July 14

UPDATED 3/20 AM to account for remaining votes left to count in Florida

As the effects of the coronavirus continue to spread, three primaries were held last night, and the Democratic primary electorate continued to make its preference clear: Joe Biden is its preferred candidate for President, as he unequivocally won all three contests on the ballot (Ohio at the 11th hour rescheduled its primary from last night to June 2). Still, Bernie Sanders at the present time is staying in the race. So what were the takeaways from last night ?




Unambiguous Biden wins: By varying margins (62-23% in Florida, 59-36% in Illinois, and 44-32% in Arizona), Biden won all three contests on the ballot. It’s also worth noting that thanks to early voting, there were still a considerable number of ballots cast for one of the withdrawn Democratic candidates in the Arizona and Florida (although not so much in Illinois) contests.


Variable Democratic turnout: Given that the spread of the corona virus caused governmental entities across the country to restrict movement and crowd sizes, was there an impact on voter turnout ? In Florida and Arizona, which have a large percentage of the vote cast by mail, the answer was “no”, while in Illinois (which isn’t as strong of an early/mail in voting state), the answer was “yes”. To illustrate (with a caveat: in all three states, we don’t have complete results):

Arizona: Last night’s 531K Democratic turnout (Republicans did not hold a primary contest) exceeded the 468K turnout in 2016 and 457K in 2008. However, not only is 12% of the precinct vote left to count, but many in Arizona like to vote by mail, and there are a significant number of these types of ballots cast at the last minute, which means they’ll be counted over the next couple of weeks;

Florida: Last night’s 1735K Democratic turnout (1238K voted in the Republican primary) is within reach of exceeding the 1750K Democratic turnout of 2008, and is above the 1709K who voted in 2016. And even though 99% of the precinct vote is counted, in 14 counties (mainly the larger ones), the mail in vote has not been completely counted.  Which is largely due to the presence of overseas absentee ballots, which aren’t tallied until March 27, although overseas ballots are not a substantial number of votes;

Illinois: This was a state where turnout was clearly impacted by the coronavirus, because the bulk of the vote was cast in person. 1539K Democrats voted (Republican turnout was 524K) with 99% of the vote in, and that turnout level is noticeably below the 2084K Democrat turnout in 2016 (2008 Democratic turnout was 3419K).

Overall, in the 24 contests held before the coronavirus pandemic spurred various governmental bodies into action late last week, Democratic turnout was above the previous record of 2008: 20.8 million voted in Democratic primaries, as opposed to the 17.9 million Democrats who voted in 2008 – and there are still up to 800K votes left to count in California and Washington.


California Counting: Technically, California’s contest was two weeks ago, but because so much of the vote is cast by mail (59% of the vote in the 2016 primary was mail in absentees) counting takes a month to complete. As of the writing of this article, a record 5.5 million Democratic votes were cast for President (compared to 5.1 million in 2008 and 5.2 million in 2016). And the California Secretary of State has estimated there are an additional 726 thousand more ballots to count.

What’s interesting about the results so far is how many Democratic held onto their ballots until the very end, which illustrates the instability of the Democratic field before “Super Tuesday”: while 66% of those voting on Election Day voted for a Democratic candidate, a whopping 75% of the vote counted since then has been Democratic.


Looking ahead: What’s next? We are in uncharted territory right now, as federal, state, and local governments are taking measures to limit the spread of the virus by limiting social contact, and that directly impacts in person voting, whether early or Election Day voting. And as part of measures being taken by governmental entities, multiple primary contests got rescheduled: The Ohio contest that would have been last night was moved back to June 2. Georgia’s March 24 primary was moved back to May 19. Alabama moved its March 31 US Senate/House runoffs to July 14. And Louisiana’s April 4 primary was moved back to June 20.

The cumulative impact of all these changes is that there are no primary election contests until April 4 in Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming (which cancelled the “in person” component of its voting). Then Wisconsin votes on April 7. After that are five contests will be held on April 28 (Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island – Maryland already moved its primary back to June 2).

However, unless there are signs of the pandemic abating, it’s not certain that the April 4 and 7 contests will even be conducted on their scheduled dates. These reschedulings also raise the possibility of the rescheduled primaries’ being backloaded relatively close to the start of the Democratic convention (which starts on July 13), so there is an outside chance of even THAT event being impacted (Republicans don’t hold their convention until August 24).

In the meantime, as the race is about to enter a (possibly lengthy) pause, Joe Biden has an unambiguous delegate lead over Bernie Sanders (1147-861, with 1,991 needed to be nominated on the first ballot).