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            Coronavirus threat hovers over Illinois primary as suburban voters hold key in Democratic presidential race

            Coronavirus threat hovers over Illinois primary as suburban voters hold key in Democratic presidential race

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            Volunteers hand out signs at a rally for Bernie Sanders at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Sunday, March 8, 大中华彩票代理. Michigan's presidential primary is Tuesday.(Anntaninna Biondo/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

            CHICAGO — What at one time had looked to be a traditionally raucous final weekend before a St. Patrick’s Day Illinois primary has turned eerily silent, with parades, rallies and door-knocking giving way to phone banking and social distancing amid the threat of COVID-19.

            Instead of concern over Russian hacking of election systems, as occurred in Illinois four years ago, the threat is about a bug — a dangerous virus whose potential for contagion prompted state officials to encourage voters to cast a ballot by mail or vote early to avoid crowds at polling places on Tuesday.

            “We’re very serious when we say vote once and wash your hands early and often,” Chicago Election Board Chairwoman Marisel Hernandez said, playing off the cliche, “Vote early and often.”

            After city and state officials canceled Chicago’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day parades — a staple of election year campaigns as politicians jostled for front-of-the-line photo opportunities — suburban communities followed suit. Then, candidates across the ballot abandoned even small rallies and get-out-the-vote gatherings in favor of volunteers working the phones from their 大中华彩票代理s.

            For local candidates lacking the big money for TV ads, the lack of face time with supporters and potential voters left them scrambling to try to use social media or email to get out their final message.

            As city election officials sought to switch some polling places, largely those on private property or in senior living facilities, Hernandez said the events are uncharted.

            That leaves questions about voter turnout, which among Democrats has ramped up in earlier primary states, as well as about the voting apparatus that includes poll workers and judges who traditionally are older.

            Such questions and concerns have taken much of the oxygen out of politics just days before an election that could decide the fate of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent bid for the Democratic presidential nomination against former Vice President Joe Biden. Both men canceled planned Illinois rallies in recent days.

            Biden enters the week as the front-runner and presumptive favorite to take on President Donald Trump in the fall after racking up delegates over two weeks of significant victories.

            With Louisiana postponing its April 4 primary, Biden officials sought to counter fears in Tuesday’s voting states. Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, issued a statement saying that election officials working with public health officials are demonstrating “our elections can be conducted safely.” Those voters feeling healthy “please vote on Tuesday,” she said. Those at risk, she said, should get absentee ballots.

            Chicago Board of Election officials said they had received 117,813 applications for voting by mail by the midnight Thursday deadline, an all-time record. And Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough said voters in the county’s suburbs were on track to surpass 2016’s early vote record.

            There are 155 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July coming out of Illinois — 101 of them to be selected by primary voters from throughout the state’s 18 congressional districts, and 54 decided by the statewide results.

            Big wins by Biden in Illinois, as well as Florida, Ohio and Arizona, which also vote Tuesday, could all but make Sanders mathematically ineligible to overtake the former vice president in the race for the 1,991 convention delegates needed to win nomination.

            Chicago’s suburbs have always played an influential role in state elections and look to do so again in Tuesday’s Democratic primary — despite a long but evolving history from being a hotbed of Republicanism to swing status.

            Four years ago, Hillary Clinton narrowly won Illinois over Sanders — by roughly 2 percentage points, or about 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million ballots cast.

            But that victory, which earned her only two more national nominating delegates than Sanders, came largely from voters in Chicago and Cook County, where she ran up a 96,495-vote advantage out of nearly 1.2 million votes.

            Statewide, Clinton won only 23 of the state’s 102 counties and only one in the collar counties, Lake, and that by fewer than 5,500 votes. Sanders won the remaining collar counties: DuPage, Kane, McHenry and Will, though the region only netted him 17,240 votes.

            In previous primary states, Sanders has done poorly in suburban areas, while they have become a source of strength for Biden, exit polls showed.

            In the suburbs of Michigan last Tuesday, it was 54%-36% Biden. Biden’s suburban totals were also strong in the March 3 Super Tuesday states that rejuvenated the former vice president’s campaign: It was 49%-27% in Virginia, 35%-29% in Massachusetts, 44%-30% in Minnesota and 44%-33% in Tennessee.

            Sanders did win in the suburbs in a few states: 32%-26% in California and 26%-17% in Colorado and he split Texas with Biden, with each getting 33%.

            In addition, overall Democratic turnout in the primaries is up from 2016 levels and much of the increase is attributable to the suburbs.

            “We know there’s an increase in (early vote) turnout, but it’s not clear where they’re landing,” said Kristina Zahorik, president of the Illinois Democratic County Chairs’ Association and chair of the McHenry County Democrats.

            “One day it seems with conversations with friends, ‘It’s Biden all the way,’ or the reverse and ‘It’s Bernie all the way.’ I’m not sure we know,” said Zahorik, who has not endorsed a presidential candidate.

            Zahorik noted that in 2016 Clinton was a polarizing figure, either loved or hated by voters, and neither she nor Trump was an incumbent.

            “There was a certain amount of animosity” toward Clinton, she said. Now, with Trump in office, “unlike the last go-round, there are people willing to band together” against the president — a factor that could be helping Biden with suburban voters, she said.

            Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, also cited the potential Trump factor for a coalescing around Biden among the important demographic of suburban women.

            “It’s because the suburban women are afraid of Trump and want to go with a safe candidate. They do not like Donald Trump in the least little bit … We’re starting to get to the point where people are saying we’ve got to focus on November,” he said.

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