Joe Biden coasted to a blowout victory over Bernie Sanders in Florida's Democratic presidential primary and was projected to win Illinois on Tuesday, edging closer to the nomination to face President Donald Trump in November's election.
Biden rolled over Sanders by nearly 40 percentage points in Florida, the largest of the three states voting on Tuesday, and beat Sanders in every county in the traditional political battleground state.
Edison Research and television networks projected Biden also won in Illinois, where he opened a huge lead of more than 20 percentage points over Sanders with 41% of the precincts reporting.
Polls closed in Arizona, the third state voting on Tuesday, but there were no immediate projections.
Biden, the former vice president, hopes big victories on Tuesday will help him amass an unassailable advantage over Sanders in the race to choose a challenger to the Republican Trump in the Nov. 3 election, before the race enters an extended hiatus with no voting scheduled for weeks.
The easy Biden wins appeared to be a sign Democrats were ready to unite for the campaign against Trump and could increase pressure on Sanders, 78, to end his presidential bid. Democrats have worried about a possible repeat of 2016, when they believe his long, bitter primary battle with Hillary Clinton played a role in her upset loss to Trump, 73.
In sombre remarks broadcast from his home in Delaware, Biden, 77, said the coronavirus outbreak demanded leadership from the White House and appealed to the many young supporters drawn to Sanders, a democratic socialist U.S. senator.
"Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what's at stake. I know what we have to do," he said. "Our goal as a campaign and my goal as a candidate for president was to unify this party and then to unify the nation."
Young voters between ages 18 and 44 were the only major demographic that backed Sanders in Florida and Illinois, the Edison polls showed.
BIDEN FAVORED IN CRISIS
Florida, where Trump barely beat Clinton in the general election by 1.2 percentage points in 2016, was the biggest prize of the day with 219 delegates. Biden was projected to have won 104 delegates to Sanders' 36 in Florida and Illinois so far, with more than 100 still to be allocated.
Despite escalating concerns about the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down large public gatherings across the country, Edison Research estimated Democratic turnout in Florida at 1.85 million - more than the 1.7 million who voted in 2016 and 1.75 million in 2008.
A majority of voters in all three states trusted Biden more than Sanders to handle a major crisis, Edison Research polls found in a sign the deepening health crisis has helped increase Biden's appeal as a steady and experienced hand.
They also found seven of 10 voters in all three states believed Biden had the best chance of beating Trump, a crucial factor in this year's Democratic race where electability has been the top priority for many voters.
Because of the coronavirus, Edison Research, which normally conducts exit polls, spoke by telephone to early voters and others who planned to vote.
Biden has taken command of the Democratic race in the past two weeks, scoring victories in 16 of the last 21 state contests and building a lead of roughly 150 delegates over Sanders in the chase for the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at July's Democratic convention.
'A REAL DISASTER'
The polls also showed about half of voters in Illinois were "very concerned" about the potential effects of the outbreak, which caused Ohio to cancel its planned nominating contest on Tuesday.
"Our goal is that no one will have to choose between their constitutional rights and risking their health," Ohio Governor Mike DeWine told a news conference on Tuesday, adding that going ahead with the vote would have been "a real, real disaster."
Several states have postponed their Democratic presidential primaries, including Georgia, which had been scheduled to vote on March 24; Louisiana, on April 4; Maryland, on April 28; and Kentucky, on May 19.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, urged the remaining primary states not to postpone their voting but to focus on ways to make it safer such as voting by mail and extending early voting hours.
Officials in the three states that voted on Tuesday had assured the public it was safe despite fears about the coronavirus, which has dramatically altered American life, forced the campaigns to abandon public events and prompted other states to postpone future primary elections.
In remarks live-streamed online before the voting ended on Tuesday, Sanders did not mention Tuesday's primaries but set out a detailed $2 trillion plan to deal with the health and economic impacts of coronavirus.
Tracy Finger, 53, wore a face mask as he cast a vote for Sanders in Miami on Tuesday. He said he expected the pandemic would offer the eventual Democratic nominee a political boost given the Trump administration's response, which has drawn criticism for a lack of urgency.
Armed with hand sanitizer in his jacket pocket, Bill Monnin, a 60-year-old bartender who was recently laid off because of a lack of business due to the coronavirus, went to cast his ballot in Chicago.
"It's important, it's our responsibility," he said as he walked into Kilmer Elementary School on Chicago's north side. "It's not an impossible situation yet. You don't have to stay home."