AP NEWS

Bernie Sanders captures win in North Dakota caucuses

March 11, 2020 GMT
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Caucus voters stand in line to register before voting at the North Dakota Democratic NPL Presidential Caucus inside the AFL-CIO House of Labor in Bismarck, N.D., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)
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Caucus voters stand in line to register before voting at the North Dakota Democratic NPL Presidential Caucus inside the AFL-CIO House of Labor in Bismarck, N.D., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP)

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Bernie Sanders captured North Dakota’s caucuses Wednesday, a repeat victory in a state he won four years ago but the smallest of prizes after a night where rival Joe Biden captured much bigger states elsewhere.

The state Democratic Party expected a big turnout surge for revamped caucuses and they got it — so much that the party had to put out an urgent call for volunteers to add staff at its largest site in Fargo, and wound up holding that site and Grand Forks’ open an extra hour and delaying the party’s reporting of results.

When results from Fargo were finally tallied Wednesday, Sanders had a thumping victory, with roughly 53% of the vote to Biden’s 40%. But the state offered just 14 pledged delegates.

Heather Davin, 20, a student at North Dakota State University, was among those who endured a long wait in Fargo before she finally was able to cast her ballot for Sanders, whom she said “has the most gumption in what he is talking about.”

In Bismarck, Nicole Schumaker also backed Sanders, telling the Bismarck Tribune she saw him as having “the best shot” at unseating Trump.

After polls closed in Michigan, the Sanders campaign complained of long waits to vote in that state “and around the country.”

But in Fargo, North Dakota State professor Bob Pieri said Democrats should be proud of the turnout in North Dakota, a state that Donald Trump carried in 2016 by a bigger margin than any except West Virginia.

“I think that’s good news for Bernie. I don’t know what he’s complaining about,” Pieri, the last person in line in Fargo, said. “To me what that says is there are a lot of people who want to get involved.”

Linda Day, 80, of Fargo, is a self-described progressive who said she likes the idea of a single payer healthcare system. But she was going for Biden.

“He is my man,” Day said. “Trump is very much afraid of Biden.”

At midday, voters waited in line outside a union hall in the state’s largest and most liberal city while party leaders scrambled to handle the unexpected crowd. Traffic and lines only grew during the post-workday crush, cars waiting to turn into the parking lot or searching for a place to park on the street. Five propane heaters were set up to keep people warm in the 31-degree weather, and volunteers served coffee.

For the most part, the mood was light: One man set up a pair of small but powerful speakers on a picnic table and blasted rock music. And one voter who exited the building ran through the crowd holding up his cell phone and yelling, “You’re close!′

Rick Gion, 40, a longtime North Dakota Democrat, said he got an “all hands on deck” call from the state party chair at midday asking for volunteers to help with the Fargo caucus. Gion spent much of his time helping handicapped people, families with babies and other people who may not have dressed for the occasion get moved inside.

“People are so excited about getting President Trump out of office,” Gion said. “The lines are long and people are being so patient.”

North Dakota shifted this year from traditional caucuses to so-called “firehouse caucuses” that work much like typical elections, with voters able to show up, cast a ballot and leave. The parties run the process, and Democrats had 14 locations statewide open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a mail-in option as well. About 250 people were still in line at Fargo when the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time hit; those people were allowed to vote and finished by about 8 p.m. Party spokesman Alex Rohr said voters in Grand Forks — home to the University of North Dakota — also weren’t complete until about the same time.

With much larger prizes at stake elsewhere, neither candidate did much in the state. President Donald Trump was unopposed in the GOP’s caucuses.

Sanders won North Dakota just four years ago, clobbering Hillary Clinton in the traditional format that rewards highly organized campaigns with fervent followers willing to invest the time necessary to see the process through.

The limited locations and the eight-hour window for voting — less time than a traditional election and with no ability for people to vote before work — meant increased pressure on the caucus sites. Party spokesman Alex Rohr said both were based on the party’s “volunteer force.” He pointed out that the party gave voters a mail-in option for people who didn’t want to or couldn’t travel significant distances to vote, or otherwise had problems.

Just 3,400 people took part in Democrats’ 2016 caucuses; on Tuesday, participation more than quadrupled to more than 14,000.

Connor Marchus, 20, another Sanders supporter who attends North Dakota State, liked the revamped caucus format.

“It’s a slight inconvenience but overall when you look at the bigger picture, it’s great to have this many people vote,” he said.

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Associated Press writer Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.