WEST PALM BEACH, Florida – Hillary Clinton rolled up primary victories in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina on Tuesday, dealing a severe blow to Bernie Sanders’ bid to slow her march toward the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton also was competing against Sanders in two other Midwestern states, Missouri and Illinois. But her primary night trifecta strengthened her already formidable pledged delegate lead over Sanders.
Florida was the biggest delegate prize and Clinton’s victories put her in a position to end the day with about two-thirds of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
“The numbers are adding up in my favor,” Clinton told reporters in Raleigh, North Carolina, before flying to Florida on Tuesday.
With the three wins, Clinton will pick up at least 248 delegates while Sanders will gain 102. Many delegates remain to be allocated pending more complete vote totals.
Democratic voters in all five states viewed Clinton as the candidate with the better chance to beat Trump if he is the Republican nominee, according to early exit polls. The voters were more likely to describe Sanders as honest but more likely to describe Clinton’s policies as realistic.
“She has done it. She has been there. She is the person that should replace Barack Obama,” said Eduardo De Jesus, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who voted for Clinton.
Clinton urged Democrats in recent days to unite behind her candidacy so it could focus on Trump, the Republican front-runner. In telling campaign optics, Clinton staged Tuesday’s primary night rally in West Palm Beach, a few miles from Mar-a-Lago, where Trump was holding a news conference at his Palm Beach estate.
Sanders aimed for victory in Missouri and was within striking distance in Illinois, a state where he hoped his trade-focused message would resonate. It helped him pull off an upset in Michigan last week, prompting him to continue to question Clinton’s past support for trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Secretary Clinton has supported virtually every one of these disastrous trade agreements,” Sanders said Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina. “When decision time came, as to whether you were on the side of working people, or corporate America, she made the wrong decision.”
Entering Tuesday, Clinton had 768 pledged delegates compared to 554 for Sanders, according to an analysis by The Associated Press. Overall, Clinton holds 1,235 of total delegates, more than half the amount needed to clinch the nomination when the count includes superdelegates, who are elected officials and party leaders free to support the candidate of their choice. Sanders has 580 delegates when the count includes superdelegates.
Nearly 700 delegates were at stake in Tuesday’s primaries and the delegates will be awarded proportionally, making it difficult for Sanders to make a large dent in Clinton’s lead.
Sanders’ team says the calendar will be more favorable to the senator in the weeks ahead. After Tuesday’s contests, the campaign shifts westward, with contests in Arizona, Idaho and Utah on March 22 and Alaska, Hawaii and Washington state on March 26.
LISA LERER AND KEN THOMAS