Bernie Sanders badly needs a win to continue his campaign against Hillary Clinton, and sympathetic Washington caucusgoers may give him one.
The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination will roll through Washington state this week, with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders badly in need of a win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Saturday’s caucuses.
Sanders may get one.
Big crowds are expected at Sanders rallies Sunday in Seattle, Spokane and Vancouver. Preregistrations for the March 26 precinct caucuses have skewed toward younger voters, who have backed him.
Even Clinton advisers predict Washington will feel the Bern. They just hope to limit the scalding.
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“We expect him to have a good few days coming up, but not enough to capture the nomination,” said Marlon Marshall, director of states for the Clinton campaign. “We expect to earn some delegates coming out of Washington and are excited about it.”
Clinton plans public events in Seattle and Everett on Tuesday, but has not released details. She also is scheduled for a private fundraiser Tuesday at the Medina home of Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman.
Trouble in Washington’s Democratic caucuses is nothing new for Clinton — or her husband. During his successful 1992 run for president, Bill Clinton placed fourth in the caucuses here, losing to Massachusetts ex-Sen. Paul Tsongas, once and future California Gov. Jerry Brown, and “uncommitted.” In 2008, local caucusgoers overwhelmingly backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ local strength is built on a volunteer army that began organizing last year, drawn to his message that billionaires have rigged the American political system. By the time the official campaign sent paid staffers and opened offices this month, much groundwork had been laid.
“We have a strong base here,” said Dulce Saenz, Washington state director for the Sanders campaign. “When we dropped in, we were not building from scratch.”
With 101 delegates up for grabs, Washington is the biggest prize on a Saturday that will also see Democratic caucuses in Alaska (16 delegates) and Hawaii (25 delegates).
Even if Sanders wins a majority of delegates in all three states, his path to the victory is growing more difficult. As of Friday, Clinton had amassed 1,614 delegates, compared with 856 for Sanders. At least 2,383 are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.
Obama recently told a group of Democratic donors in Texas that Sanders’ campaign was nearing an end, and that the party should start uniting behind Clinton, according a New York Times report last week.
Ardent local Sanders backers are not ready to give up, and some argue Saturday’s caucuses remain meaningful even if their candidate is unlikely to win the nomination.
“I think it is so important people don’t lose hope,” said Shasta Willson, a Sanders supporter from Shoreline. “Even if he is not the nominee, the more powerful the turnout and the more powerful the showing, the more it pulls her [Clinton] to the left.”
Willson said she began this election cycle expecting to back Clinton, but grew intrigued by Sanders and increasingly annoyed at the Democratic establishment’s dismissiveness of him.
That feeling deepened in January when Planned Parenthood endorsed Clinton — the first time the group has endorsed in a presidential primary. “I made the largest donation I had made to date to Sanders on that day,” Willson said. “I don’t like the idea there is a big machine trying to tell me what to do.”
Clinton has the backing of most top elected Democrats in Washington state, including Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and all six Democrats in the state’s U.S. House delegation. They are among the 17 automatic “superdelegates” to the Democratic convention this summer, and are not bound by Saturday’s caucus vote.
Last week, 40 Democratic state legislators and King County Executive Dow Constantine announced their own endorsements of Clinton over Sanders, who has long identified as an independent and a democratic socialist.
Citing the wild presidential election year, Constantine praised Clinton as someone who could bring “clarity in the midst of chaos.” Her experience as secretary of state, first lady and U.S. senator “have prepared her, uniquely among the candidates, to succeed as president,” Constantine said.
The steady-hand argument is unlikely to sway enthusiastic Sanders supporters expected to flock to the caucuses. The neighborhood-level meetings, which generally require voters to show up in person as opposed to mailing a primary ballot, can improve the odds for candidates with the most energized supporters.
“Typically, caucuses are designed to give a leg up to an insurgent candidate,” said former state Democratic Party chair Paul Berendt.
But Berendt, a Clinton supporter, said he’s seen her campaign work harder and more strategically in advance of this year’s caucuses compared with eight years ago. “In many ways I think in 2008 the campaign didn’t expend enough resources and energy into precinct caucus states. That is not the case this year,” he said.
Clinton’s campaign aides say that in the coming week they’ll emphasize her record to Washington voters on issues including women’s health and paid family leave.
They’re also hitting Sanders’ opposition to the Export-Import Bank, which makes and guarantees loans to aid U.S. companies in selling goods to foreign markets. Sanders has derided Ex-Im as “corporate welfare” and the “bank of Boeing” because the aerospace giant receives the largest share of aid.
But in the birthplace of Boeing, Clinton supporters hope Sanders will suffer for that stance. Prominent state Democrats including former Gov. Chris Gregoire have criticized Sanders for siding with conservative Republicans against the Ex-Im reauthorization.
Clinton’s event in Everett Tuesday, which will involve aerospace machinists, is expected to focus on the Ex-Im contrast.
The demographics of Washington caucusgoers, though, may favor Sanders. The state has a relatively small African-American population — a demographic that has strongly favored Clinton.
Sanders has fared well with young voters, and so far 60 percent of the 50,000 people who have preregistered for Washington’s caucuses are between 18 and 34 years old, according to the state Democratic Party.
Michael Davisson, who grew up in Redmond, is among Sanders’ crew of young believers. The 24-year-old, who said he’s been a political junkie since age 12, was drawn to Sanders after spending the last year and a half working at a homelessness-prevention nonprofit in Detroit.
“I really witnessed firsthand how our broken economic and legal system really affects the poorest and underrepresented in our society,” he said.
So when Sanders started talking about a political revolution, “It really kind of connected with me because of what I was seeing,” Davisson said.
He traveled on his own dime to volunteer for Sanders in the Iowa caucuses, staying with his grandparents. He followed Sanders to volunteer in the Colorado caucuses. About a week ago, the campaign hired him and he went to work in Washington state.
While Washington’s precaucus debate has played out in mostly civil fashion, there have been brickbats tossed on social media between Clinton and Sanders supporters.
And then there was the dust-up at the Port Townsend Food Co-op.
A couple of weeks ago, Clinton volunteers had set up a table outside the organic grocery to hand out campaign literature.
A young woman stopped and started screaming at them that only Sanders could beat Donald Trump, said Mary Tucker, coordinator of the volunteer table. The tirade went on for a couple of minutes, as customers walked by and stared.
“She was carrying on something terrific. It was very unpleasant,” Tucker said, adding there had been a few previous, though less voluble, incidents.
A couple of days later, the word came down: No more political tables allowed.
Kenna Eaton, general manager of the co-op, confirmed the store had received customer complaints but said the move was not aimed at any particular campaign. “We just wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome shopping,” she said.
Tucker said she knows the incident was no reflection on most Sanders supporters or his official campaign, but called it unfortunate. “Every campaign now has been hurt by this scene,” she said.