For Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders, Washington state is a prize he can’t afford to lose.
The Vermont senator trails Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton by a wide margin in the battle for the party’s nomination. But the Sanders campaign hopes a strong showing at Washington’s caucuses Saturday could help close that gap.
Throughout the state, thousands of Democratic voters are expected to turn out for precinct caucuses Saturday to choose who they want as the party’s nominee.
The caucus results will determine how many of Washington’s 101 pledged delegates will represent each candidate at the Democratic National Convention, which takes place July 25-28 in Philadelphia.
Of the 21 states that have yet to hold Democratic caucuses or primaries, Washington is among those with the most delegates up for grabs. Going forward, only California, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have more delegates at stake in the Democratic presidential race.
“We’re seeing a lot of national attention turn to Washington state because it’s the biggest state allocating delegates over the next few weeks,” said Jamal Raad, a spokesman for the Washington State Democrats. “I think both candidates are still working very hard to win over voters, and I think we’re seeing that this week with the visits by the candidates.”
Sanders circled the state Sunday, holding campaign events in Seattle, Vancouver and Spokane. He plans to return the state Thursday and Friday for three more stops in Yakima, Spokane and Seattle.
Clinton, meanwhile, visited Washington on Tuesday, speaking with tribal leaders in Puyallup, as well as at the Machinists Union Hall in Everett.
The former secretary of state also stopped in Seattle for a campaign event at Rainier Beach High School, as well as in Medina for a private fundraiser at the home of Costco co-founder Jeff Brotman.
WHERE THE DEMOCRATIC RACE STANDS
So far, observers predict Sanders has the edge in Washington, largely based on his successful fundraising efforts here.
While Clinton leads Sanders in fundraising nationwide, Sanders — who identifies himself as a Democratic socialist — has managed to raise about $2.6 million in Washington, compared with Clinton’s $2 million.
Also fueling predictions of a Sanders victory in Washington state? History.
President Barack Obama easily defeated Clinton in Washington’s caucuses in 2008, while Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, fared poorly during the state’s caucuses in 1992.
“The caucus crowd here is really friendly to candidates who are more to the left of the party, every year,” said Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University.
On a national scale, Sanders faces an uphill climb against Clinton, who has amassed a substantial lead in the delegate count.
It takes 2,383 delegates to win the Democratic party’s nomination. Heading into Tuesday’s Democratic caucuses in Idaho, Arizona and Utah, Clinton had won 1,163 of the pledged delegates — those that are allocated through primaries and caucuses — while Sanders won 844.
Clinton also has won the support of hundreds more superdelegates, the Democratic Party leaders who can support any candidate and aren’t bound by primary election or caucus results. As of Monday, 467 superdelegates had declared their support for Clinton, compared with 26 superdelegates who have said they’re supporting Sanders.
While those party leaders could change their minds if the race swings Sanders’ way, Donovan said that outcome is unlikely based on how Democrats allocate delegates in most states.
In Washington and elsewhere, pledged delegates will be awarded proportionally to candidates based on the caucus results, as opposed to a system of winner-take-all.
That means Clinton and Sanders will continue to accrue delegates even when they lose, making it harder for Sanders to catch up from behind, Donovan said.
Yet Donovan said Sanders’ platform seems to be driving Clinton to express more liberal viewpoints on the campaign trail — and that may be what Sanders’ campaign is focused on more than winning the nomination.
“I think you can see that on the stump, she’s starting to sound a bit more like him,” Donovan said. “I think that might be one of his goals.”
HOW CAUCUSING WORKS
At 10 a.m. Saturday, Democrats throughout Washington state will convene in schools, churches and other neighborhood locations to help pick their party’s nominee for president.
Anyone who identifies as a Democrat can participate in the caucuses, as long as he or she is 18 years old by Election Day (Nov. 8).
Those who aren’t registered to vote can register on site and participate in precinct caucuses that day.
During the caucus meetings, Democrats will discuss and vote on who they want to be the party’s presidential nominee. Each candidate will be awarded a proportion of delegates based the percentage of support they win at the caucus meeting.
Additionally, Democrats at the precinct caucuses will choose more than 27,000 delegates who advance to county and legislative district caucuses. Those delegates will then choose a smaller pool of delegates to attend the state’s congressional district caucuses, which in turn will select 67 people to attend the Democratic National Convention.
Raad, the Democratic party spokesman, said precinct caucuses also are a place where people can volunteer to participate in initiative campaigns and discuss other political issues.
Participants will have the chance to introduce resolutions that could make it onto the state party’s platform, which will be decided at the state’s Democratic convention in Tacoma in June, Raad said.
As of last week, Democrats said 50,000 people had preregistered for precinct caucuses in Washington state.
Raad said he’s not sure this year’s caucuses will draw as many participants as in 2008, when a record-setting 250,000 people showed up. Still, Democratic party officials expect “a strong showing,” he said.
WHAT ABOUT REPUBLICANS?
Republicans aren’t using the results of precinct caucuses to help decide who will be the Republican nominee for president.
Rather, the state Republican party will allocate all of its delegates to the Republican National Convention based on the results of Washington’s May 24 presidential primary.
While Republicans in Washington held their own precinct caucuses in February, those meetings didn’t include voting for presidential candidates.
Susan Hutchison, the chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, said more people participate in a primary election than in precinct caucuses, which makes the primary a more inclusive process.
“It allows many more people to vote,” Hutchison said.
The primary election results won’t affect the outcome of the Democratic presidential race, however, which will rely solely on Saturday’s caucus results.
Previously, Republicans pushed to move up the state’s presidential primary to March, a shift they argued would make Washington more relevant in the national presidential contest.
But the way this year’s Republican race is going, Hutchison said, Washington’s primary is poised to be exciting even with its May date.
She said party officials predict it will be “statistically impossible” for any of the Republican candidates — including real estate mogul Donald Trump — to cinch the party’s nomination before Washington’s primary in May.
Hutchison said she expects Republican candidates to visit the state before the primary, as well as spend heavily on radio and TV advertisements leading up to the vote.
“It’s going to be very exciting,” Hutchison said. “There is a chance that our primary could be a deciding factor in the selection of our nominee.”
In recent months, Hutchison and other Republican party officials have criticized Democrats’ adherence to the caucus system, which Hutchison said is outdated and caters to party activists rather than everyday voters.
“The idea you have to show up in a school cafeteria or a church basement in order to be able to vote for the next president of the United States is very behind the times,” Hutchison said.
Raad, however, said the caucus system has benefits, including gathering neighbors together to talk about issues that matter to them.
“It’s not often in life that you get to meet people in person and discuss the big challenges we face as a nation,” Raad said. “We do that every four years.”
FIND YOUR CAUCUS LOCATION
WHAT: Democratic precinct caucuses
WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday
WHERE: Visit the state Democratic Party’s website to find your caucus location. You’ll need to enter the address at which you are registered to vote. Those who want to caucus can preregister at wa-democrats.org/page/2016-democratic-caucuses
WHO CAN GO: Anyone who identifies as a Democrat and will be 18 years of age or older on or before Nov. 8, 2016. Those who are not registered to vote but want to participate in the caucus can register at the caucus and participate the same day.