BISMARCK – North Dakota Democrats handed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders a convincing win over Hillary Clinton by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the state’s presidential preference caucus Tuesday, with turnout a top party official said “far exceeded expectations.”
With all 47 districts reporting, caucus voters allotted 253 delegates to Sanders and 101 delegates to Clinton, plus 40 uncommitted delegates, according to Democratic-NPL Party Executive Director Robert Haider.
The delegates are now eligible to attend a June 18 selection meeting in Bismarck. There, they they will elect 18 pledged delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention July 25-28 in Philadelphia along with five unpledged superdelegates already chosen.
Sanders regional press secretary Diane May said it was “pretty clear that North Dakota caucus-goers agree with our message,” including free college tuition, raising the minimum wage and universal health care.
“It also doesn’t hurt that he was the only candidate to make a stop in North Dakota,” she said, referring to Sanders’ campaign swing May 13 through Bismarck, Grand Forks and Fargo.
Caucuses started at 7 p.m. Tuesday, roughly 24 hours after the Associated Press declared that Clinton had secured the 2,383 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. That number included 571 superdelegates free to switch their support at any time before the national convention, which Sanders is counting on to keep his nomination hopes alive.
More than 450 party faithful from five districts filed into Bismarck High School, one of 31 caucus sites statewide. With Sanders posters taped to the walls, t-shirts, campaign signs and booming chants of “Feel! feel!” “Bern! Bern!”, the gymnasium crowd clearly leaned heavily toward the self-described democratic socialist.
Sanders volunteer Vinod Seth, a physician originally from India, urged District 35 voters in the bleachers to support “honest Bernie,” a play on GOP presumptive nominee Donald Trump’s “crooked Hillary” nickname.
“It is time to join the political revolution,” Seth said.
Former U.S. attorney Tim Purdon tried to stir support for Clinton, saying the November election “is going to be a street fight.”
“She has been tested,” he said.
Haider said the news that Clinton reached the delegate threshold did nothing to curb enthusiasm for the caucus in red-state North Dakota, which hasn’t voted a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
With only 23 delegates, North Dakota offered the smallest prize among the six states hosting a nominating contest Tuesday. But both candidates staked a presence in the past few weeks, opening campaign offices and mobilizing volunteers.
Tyler Fisher, 28, was among the volunteers who worked the phones and went door-to-door for Sanders. Still clutching a handful of door hangers and donning a tie-dyed “Keep Calm and Feel the Bern” t-shirt, the openly gay home health care worker said Sanders’ position on gay rights won him over.
“He’s for equal rights, marriage equality, lower taxes, going to college,” he said.
Asked if he could support Clinton as the nominee, Fisher, who protested Trump’s May 26 speech at an oil industry conference in Bismarck, said he “would have to think about it.”
“I probably will, just because I don’t want Trump in office,” he said.
Josh Phillips, a 33-year-old cook with a bushy red beard, said he’s frustrated with the environmental impacts of North Dakota’s oil development and is backing Sanders, who has called for an end to the hydraulic fracturing process that spurred the state’s oil boom. Still, he noted Sanders has “an uphill battle” to the nomination.
District 47’s Karen Dunlap, proudly wearing a Clinton “H” button, said she still has the t-shirt from Clinton’s unsuccessful primary run in 2008 and believes the former U.S. secretary of state has the skills and experience needed in the White House.
“She’s not a one-trick pony,” she said.
Clinton volunteer Brenda McNally, a 62-year-old social worker handing out signs in the cafeteria, said she hoped Sanders would bow out of the race as Clinton solidified her lead.
“It doesn’t hurt to have a little competition, but you’ve got to know when to quit,” she said.
Dem-NPL vice chairman Warren Larson said the party hadn’t seen this kind of excitement “for a long time.” It’s the first contested presidential caucus since the state party switched to the format in 2012, abandoning the party-run “firehouse primary” format from 2008 that saw more than 19,000 ballots cast at 180 polling sites around the state.
Larson, an uncommitted superdelegate, said he expects Sanders will take the race all the way to the convention and hopes the two candidates can join forces regardless of who ends up on top.
“I think they’d make a great team,” he said.
Of the 18 pledged delegates who will be elected June 18, 12 must come from the pool forwarded Tuesday. Haider said based on the vote percentages, he expects seven or eight of those delegates to be pledged to Sanders, three or four to Clinton and possibly one uncommitted.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.