Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders were in a virtual dead heat on election night in Washington’s presidential primary, while Biden’s surging campaign looked poised to capture most of the six primaries held across the country Tuesday.
Sanders led Biden with 32.7% of the vote to 32.5% in Washington Tuesday, with the two candidates separated by about 2,000 votes out of more than 1 million counted.
Despite a nearly unprecedented public health crisis in Western Washington that kept both septuagenarian candidates from campaigning here leading up to the primary, turnout appeared on pace to set a new state record for a presidential primary, according to Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
Washington represented the second-biggest state voting on Tuesday. Biden won the largest, Michigan, as well as Mississippi and Missouri, while North Dakota and Idaho remained too close to call.
Washington’s vote-by-mail system enabled high turnout, even as public health officials have urged “social distancing” to combat the coronavirus epidemic; thousands of employees have been told to work from home; and events across the region have been canceled or postponed.
Not only did both Biden and Sanders stay away from Washington, but their campaigns canceled official watch parties Tuesday night, wary of convening large groups of people during an outbreak. Both candidates also canceled election night rallies in Ohio, citing the advice of public health officials.
“Although there’s a way to go, it looks like we’re going to have another good night,” Biden said from Philadelphia, shortly before Washington polls closed. “This election is one that has character on the ballot.”
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders and his campaign for their tireless energy and their passion,” Biden said. “We share a common goal. And together, we’ll defeat Donald Trump.”
Sanders did not speak publicly Tuesday night.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, a prominent Sanders surrogate, said she still believed Sanders would win Washington, but did not sound positive about the state of the national race.
“We need to see where tonight ends up, there is a debate in a few days and I think it’s important for Joe Biden and for Bernie Sanders, potentially, to have that debate if Sanders feels like moving forward,” Jayapal said.
Biden, Sanders and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are the only Democratic candidates remaining in the race, but 13 candidates remained on Washington ballots. And hundreds of thousands of ballots were returned before candidates began dropping out last week.
On Tuesday night in Washington, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was coming in third with 12% of the vote and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg was fourth with 11%.
The virtual tie between Biden and Sanders comes despite the devoted following that Sanders has nurtured here since his 2016 presidential run, and despite a state-level campaign that was largely invisible in Washington.
Four years ago, Sanders waltzed to victory in Washington’s Democratic caucuses, with nearly 73% of the vote. He’d go on to narrowly lose Washington’s meaningless “beauty contest” Democratic primary that year. Since then, he has returned a couple times. He spoke to more than 900 in Seattle, on a nationwide book tour, shortly after the 2016 election. He spoke to more than 17,000 at the Tacoma Dome last month.
And he built a campaign operation here, running television ads in the last couple weeks, hiring a half-dozen paid staff in Washington and harnessing thousands of volunteers to knock on doors and phone bank in support of his campaign for “Medicare for All,” free public college and a Green New Deal. He earned the endorsement of a diverse cohort of progressive local legislators: Jayapal; Seattle City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, M. Lorena Gonzalez and Teresa Mosqueda; state Sen. Joe Nguyen; and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.
Biden had virtually no campaign infrastructure in Washington, relying instead on national media and his near-universal name recognition. He ran no TV ads and had essentially no ground game or volunteer organization in Washington. His recent visits to Washington have been exclusively for private fundraisers, with no public appearances. He garnered his own slate of Washington endorsers — who tended to be older than Sanders’ — including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott and former Governors Christine Gregoire and Gary Locke.
Polls, just within the past couple weeks, have seemed to indicate a surge toward Biden. A Crosscut/Elway poll from late February had Sanders leading with a modest plurality of 21%. Biden was in fifth, with just 10%. But a King 5 poll from last week showed a veritable dead heat, with Biden at 36% and Sanders at 35%. And a third poll, from the progressive group Data For Progress published Saturday, showed Biden at 47% and Sanders at 44%.
That burst of momentum helped him win 10 of 14 states on Super Tuesday last week, catapulting himself into the frontrunner’s spot. He’s since earned the endorsement of more erstwhile presidential competitors: Sen. Cory Booker, Sen, Kamala Harris, Bloomberg, former Rep. John Delaney and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.