With caucuses in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, the senator has a fighting chance in all three contests.
Bernie Sanders has the money and momentum to keep his campaign going all the way through to the Democratic convention. But if he’s going to do it as anything other than an also-ran to Hillary Clinton, the Vermont Senator needs wins in contests like the ones coming Saturday.
Washington state, Alaska and Hawaii all hold Democratic nomination contests on Saturday, and Sanders has a fighting chance for a sweep. All three states are holding caucuses, an activist-heavy format that Sanders has thrived on. Washington state and Alaska are also heavy on white Democrats, a core Sanders constituency, and have relatively few African Americans. Hawaii is a wild card, given a lack of polling and campaign attention, but Clinton surrogates are already working to deflate expectations.
The opportunity comes packaged with peril, however. In a race to 2,383 delegates, Clinton leads Sanders 1,690 to 946. (Even if Superdelegates are discounted, she’s still ahead by 303 pledged delegates.) And after getting clobbered in the Midwest and beaten in Arizona, Sanders is in danger of sliding back into irrelevance if he can’t score wins in the states that lean in his favor.
Win or lose, Clinton or Sanders will sit with Saturday’s consequences for a while. Other than April 5’s tilt in Wisconsin, the race goes into semi-hibernation, without a major contest coming before New York’s 291-delegate scrap April 19.
Democrats in three states on Saturday dole out 142 delegates Saturday. Here’s are the risks, rewards and likely outcomes in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii.
Washington: 101 delegates
Only four states are left on the Democratic primary calendar with more delegates at stake than Washington, but right now neither candidate can claim to be the favorite to grab them.
“We’re kind of in a sweet spot in the calendar. I mean after us New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and California are the four biggest,” Washington state Democratic Party chairman Jaxon Ravens said. “A couple weeks before us and a couple weeks after us there’s an empty space. I think the way the race has shaped up is that one thing to remember is we’re not a winner take all, it’s proportional.
Clinton has the support of top Democrats there like Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Maria Cantwell, has campaigned in the state and she, former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton have held fundraisers in the state.
But Sanders has been campaigning aggressively, The Vermont senator’s presidential campaign held a rally in Seattle’s Safeco Field on Friday, capacity over 50,000, and a day earlier did an event at the SunDome in the Yakima Nation’s treaty territory. The campaign estimated that 7,000 people were in attendance. He was also recently endorsed by The Seattle Times, the state’s most prominent newspaper. And they don’t call it the “Left Coast” for nothing: Sanders’ hopes to make hay in deeply progressive Seattle and other liberal areas along the state’s western edge.
“If Senator Sanders is ever going to do well, I think it would be in Washington,” Inslee told POLITICO this week.
Both candidates, however, have a safety net: Delegates in Democratic caucuses and primaries are awarded proportionally. And in a race expected to be tight, neither candidate is going home empty handed.
State Democratic officials are expecting huge turnout, but they have a system in place that they’re hoping will avoid the type of ballot-access debacle that struck Arizona last week. Ravens pointed to a new pre-check system for Democratic caucus voters the state party is using this year for the first time. The system essentially allows voters to fill out all the necessary information voters need ahead of time to vote in the caucuses — similar to pre-checking for an airline flight.
Hawaii: 25 delegates
Polling is non-existent in Hawaii, but local Democrats —even ones supporting Clinton — have a straightforward read on Saturday: A Sanders win is expected, a Clinton victory is a shocker.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t do very well,” said Hawaii County Democratic Committee chairman Phil Barnes.
A top Democratic aide to a Hawaii lawmaker supporting Clinton put it more directly: “He’s going to crush us. He should win this thing 2-to-1 at least,” the aide said of Sanders prospects. “If we keep this below 65-35 I’d be shocked.”
The Sanders campaign is spending big in search of a blowout. In the last month, the Sanders campaign spent $230,000 on state TV and radio ads while the Clinton campaign has spent just $40,000.
The Vermont senator’s campaign has also aggressively deployed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who left her position as a Democratic National Committee vice chairman to endorse Sanders. The campaign is looking to take advantage of her popularity there and on Friday released a new ad describing her decision to join the military and lapping praise on Sanders’ foreign policy positions.
Clinton, however, still has the support of most of Hawaii’s Democratic establishment. Big name Democrats like Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, as well as Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, are all supporting her.
Gov. David Ige, the state’s new governor who ousted former Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2014, is staying neutral — at least publicly.
“He’ll vote for Hillary and I think when he goes up to Philadelphia I would be shocked if he didn’t cast his vote [for her] as a super delegate,” a top Democrat involved with the Clinton campaign in the state said. Multiple Democratic aides said the governor has been on some of the campaign’s strategy calls in the state but hasn’t been willing to openly endorse Clinton yet.
(Ige’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.)
Still, Clinton’s campaign did as much as it could in the state, the Democratic aide said. “They’ve done a little bit of mail, a little bit of digital. They didn’t send us a surrogate and I think with all of that there is a real problem with enthusiasm especially for Clinton because there hasn’t been anything to gin it up,” the aide said.
Alaska: 16 delegates
Clinton hasn’t spent much time or energy in Alaska, and the Sanders campaign is hoping to pounce on what the Democratic frontrunner left for the taking.
The state is fertile ground for a Sanders: it’s a majority white caucus state with an anti-establishment flavor. The state also went for Obama over Clinton in 2008, and the Sanders campaign has spent $61,000 on TV and radio advertising in March while Clinton has not spent any money.
The larger view among Democrats though is that while Clinton is popular there’s more enthusiasm toward Sanders. “Bernie Sanders has been doing a very good job with his ground game here,” Alaska House Minority Leader Chris Tuck (D) said, going on to say the state has an anti-establishment inclination and “we also get upset with Wall Street and some of the banking bailouts so that plays a huge factor too. That plays into Sanders’ support.”
Neither candidate has really campaigned there at all but Jane Sanders, the senator’s wife, did a town hall over the weekend and that was a boost for Sanders, more so than it would be in other states, said Jim Lottsfeldt, the former senior adviser to the pro-Mark Begich Put Alaska First PAC.
“We never, never get a taste of a candidate here,” Lottsfeldt said. “So actually having [Sanders’] wife here this weekend is huge. I suspect he’s going to do well but I know that the mainstream I-show-up-to-every-meeting Democrat seems to be for Hillary. So I could be wrong but it just feels like there’s more enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.”
The Clinton campaign hasn’t left the state totally off its radar though.On Friday the campaign released a robocall by former President Bill Clinton across the state encouraging Democrats to vote.