Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden points to his doggie bag as he leaves the Buttercup Diner during a campaign stop in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, March 3, 2020. Credit: Tony Avelar | AP

Update: The BDN and its national election results partner, Decision Desk HQ, called the race for Joe Biden on Wednesday at 9 a.m. Read the latest story here.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s Democratic presidential primary was too close to call early Wednesday with former Vice President Joe Biden on the verge of an upset over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a race shaped by late dropouts in the crowded field.

Biden led with 34.1 percent of votes in Maine to Sanders’ 33.2 percent as he asserted himself as the new frontrunner on Super Tuesday with nearly 86 percent of municipalities reporting.

Candidates must reach 15 percent in Maine or one of its congressional districts to win any delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Biden, Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren were on track to win delegates in Maine, which was among the 14 voting on Super Tuesday in the Democratic nominating race to face President Donald Trump, who was uncontested on the Republican ballot in Maine.

    no result handler for source: ”local”
* This race will be decided by ranked-choice voting. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of total votes, the Maine secretary of state will conduct a second ballot tally at a later date to determine the winner.

NAN% reported

It was a stunning day for Biden, who won Texas and Massachusetts to cement front-runner status nationally. Sanders won California, the state carrying the most delegates. Biden ran no campaign in Maine and Massachusetts, while Sanders and Warren organized here for months.

Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, one of only a few public officials in Maine to endorse Biden, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the former vice president’s performance in Maine, adding that the results showed that voters found his message impactful.

“This has certainly turned into a super Tuesday for Joe Biden,” Thibodeau said.

The result on Tuesday was a sharp reversal from a Colby College survey released in mid-February in which Biden polled at just 12 percent, trailing Sanders, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The primary was roiled this past weekend after Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer all dropped out of the race in a span of three days. Buttigieg and Klobuchar endorsed Biden — as did some of their prominent Maine supporters — including State Treasurer Henry Beck, who had initially backed Buttigieg.

Sanders, who won the Maine caucuses handily over Hillary Clinton in 2016, was still seen as the likely frontrunner in the state this time as he led in fundraising from Mainers. He also had organizing infrastructure in the state leftover from his previous campaign.

Sanders is likely to receive nearly as many delegates from Maine as Biden. But the result is still a significant symbolic victory for the former vice president, who won without any of the campaign infrastructure that Sanders, Bloomberg and Warren deployed in the state.

Warren had 15.9 percent of the vote early Wednesday and will likely finish with a share of delegates, while Bloomberg finished below the threshold at 11.8 percent statewide. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the only other active candidate on the ballot, won less than 1 percent. Candidates who left the race combined for 4.2 percent of votes.

At a watch party at Sanders’ Portland office on Tuesday night, campaign staff and volunteers mixed excitement and disappointment, cheering victories in Vermont, Colorado and California while pointing to a need to organize for progressive candidates and causes in the state.

Benjamin Collings, Sanders’ state director, downplayed expectations Tuesday night, noting that the Vermont senator was not always considered a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. He added that the “movement” Sanders’ had created was bigger than candidate himself, pointing to the recent popularity of ideas like a $15 minimum wage.

“He’s completely changed the Democratic Party,” Collings said.

Buttigieg had been expected to win some delegates here and still came away with 2.1 percent of votes. It was likely a result of many of the 22,000 voters who submitted absentee ballots through the end of last week. The late re-allocation of Buttigieg and Klobuchar voters who voted on Election Day likely helped Biden and others.

The results were disappointing for Bloomberg, who was a wild card going into Tuesday after opting not to compete in the first four contests. He threw $400 million of his own money into TV ad spending, including more than $2 million in Maine, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Biden has not visited the state since a book tour in early 2018. Diane Sherwood, a Biden voter from Fort Fairfield, said at the polls that she saw Sanders as “a screamer,” and she wanted some “a little bit more balanced.”

“For me, the main thing is to beat the existing president and get him out of office,” Sherwood said. “I think Joe is the one who can do it.”

BDN writers Michael Shepherd and David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.