AUGUSTA, Maine — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders continued his strong performance in northeastern states Sunday with resounding victories over front-runner Hillary Clinton in local caucuses throughout Maine.
According to results from the Maine Democratic Party, Sanders took nearly 64 percent of the state delegates with about 89 percent of caucus sites reporting by 9:15 p.m. Sunday.
“I thank the people of Maine for their strong support,” said Sanders in a written statement. “With another double-digit victory, we have now won by wide margins in states from New England to the Rocky Mountains and from the Midwest to the great plains. … The pundits might not like it but the people are making history.”
After winning caucuses Saturday in Kansas and Nebraska, Sanders said the win in Maine adds to his campaign’s momentum as it prepares for a key test Tuesday in Michigan.
The state delegates Sanders won in Sunday’s caucuses will translate into delegates to the National Democratic Convention in July. Twenty-five delegates were up for grabs at the caucuses. They will be allocated proportionally based on turnout in the 1st and 2nd congressional districts and the state as a whole.
Party leaders said more than 47,000 people participated in the caucuses.
Volunteers from many of the roughly 500 caucus sites in Maine reported heavy turnouts, in some areas rivaling the flood of Democrats who turned out in 2008, Barack Obama’s first shot at the presidency.
The line of people waiting to get into the Portland caucus at Deering High School stretched more than half a mile. Some people reported waiting more than three hours before being able to register and vote in that caucus.
In Brunswick and several other locations, most of Sunday’s planned program of speeches by local candidates and consideration of party bylaws was canceled because of the heavy turnout. In Brunswick, there were still hundreds of people waiting in line as the scheduled caucus starting time came and went.
“It’s amazing,” said Brunswick caucus chairwoman Trish Reilly. “There were people already waiting here at noon,” two hours before the caucus was scheduled to start.
More than 1,500 Democrats turned out in Brunswick alone.
Before the caucuses even began, some 12,000 absentee ballots had been cast.
Among Sanders’ supporters, the themes of trust in the candidate, distrust in establishment politicians and the need for a populist reformation resounded.
John Pasquarelli, a Sanders supporter from Hodgdon, said that Clinton has a “lot of power, but where that power comes from bothers me.”
“I am going to go down with Bernie no matter what,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Clinton’s supporters emphasized her experience and their expectation that she has a much better chance of winning the general election in November.
“At the end of the day, Secretary Clinton, I feel like, has a better opportunity [to win],” former Bangor City Councilor Charlie Longo said. “[Sanders is] a little more optimistic, and I don’t know if we’re living in an optimistic world. I think that she will get something done.”
Among Sanders’ supporters, the word “trust” came up again and again. Sanders came out on top at the Aroostook County Democratic caucus at the Houlton Fire Station.
While crowds flooded some of Maine’s larger towns, the experience was much different in smaller municipalities. In coastal Arrowsic, just outside of Bath, about 60 people gathered at the Fire Department. Clinton’s lead of four votes stayed the same as competing arguments from either side managed to pull an equal number of undecideds in both directions.
“What about the absentee ballots?” asked one caucus-goer.
“Ah, yes,” said the caucus moderator. “There were 10. Five for Clinton and five for Sanders.”
There were chuckles from both sides.
“At least we’re rich with good choices this year,” someone said.
While advance public polling in Maine was negligible, Sanders’ win did not come as a surprise. He visited the state four days before the caucuses, ran an active political ground game and tapped a populist vein that runs deep in the state. Maine’s demographics are similar to states where he has done well, including Vermont and New Hampshire.
For Clinton, the defeat repeats the disappointment of 2008, when strong turnout by young voters and people new to the Democratic Party delivered victory to Obama at a time when he and Clinton were dueling for the party’s presidential nomination.
Clinton continues to hold a lead in the national delegate count — especially among establishment-minded superdelegates — but Sanders is hanging on, thanks in part for fundraising prowess, particularly among small donors.
As of the end of January, Sanders’ campaign has picked up donations from 214 different Maine ZIP codes, compared with 93 for the Clinton campaign, another indication that he could expect to do well in local caucuses.
The allocation of the 25 delegates to the national convention will be determined in the future, according to Jeremy Kennedy, the party’s executive director. The state also has five superdelegates. Superdelegates committed to Clinton are U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maggie Allen and Peggy Schaffer. Superdelegate Troy Jackson is committed to Sanders. Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett, the state’s fifth superdelegate, is uncommitted.
The heavy turnout and confusion at some caucus sites prompted Democratic Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland to announce that he’ll introduce legislation Monday aimed at replacing Maine’s caucus system with a primary election. But in other areas, the flood of voters caused organizers to truncate their events and actually make the process shorter.
Some voters said they suspect Clinton will win the nomination in the end, but she will be different as a result of Sanders in the race.
“Bernie may not win, but he’s good for Hillary,” said Dick Brautigam of Brunswick. “He’s making her talk about things that she might not talk about otherwise. He’s taking her in a more liberal direction.”
BDN writers Jen Lynds and Dawn Gagnon contributed to this report.