(CNN) — Bernie Sanders has won the Democratic caucuses in Alaska and Washington, according to CNN projections, on what is a big day for the Vermont senator’s efforts to catch up to Hillary Clinton.
Washington is the most important target this weekend with a trove of 101 delegates up for grabs, which is why both candidates spent a significant amount of time there this past week. Hawaii and Alaska are smaller prizes — with just 25 and 16 delegates at stake respectively — and neither Clinton nor Sanders made the trip.
Sanders entered the contests with the edge, and privately, the Clinton campaign has acknowledged he should win each state. Clinton’s efforts in Washington were aimed mostly at keeping the race relatively close, as the Democratic delegates are distributed proportionally. She maintains a commanding delegate lead overall.
All three states reported high turnout, possibly approaching the record numbers hit in 2008 when Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama were competing on the ballot.
In Washington, some precincts had to move their caucuses outside because they had hit capacity inside caucus locations, according to Washington State Democrats spokesman Jamal Raad. The turnout was so big in Steilacoom that the caucus organizers ran out of voters registration forms at one point.
In Alaska, Democratic Party officials in Alaska were also predicting record turnout. Hundreds of people had lined up an hour before the caucuses even started in Anchorage.
Sanders has done well in caucus states, a testament to his organizational prowess and ability to excite the Democratic base. Sanders’ campaign sees these smaller states as critical to build up momentum for upcoming contests in Wisconsin and New York next month, and the mightiest of prizes: the June 7 primary in California.
“He’s obviously doing well in these Western caucus states, because you get a very committed base of younger voters who are willing to show up and stand in line in states like Idaho and Utah for hours,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is unaligned in the presidential race this cycle. “There is a streak in the West that is populist — and the message that Sanders has is a classic western populist message: Wall Street is sticking it to us, these big money interests are sticking it to us, and we’re out here scrambling, paying pretty heavy negative dividends for their behavior.”
But Sanders still faces daunting mathematical odds as he tries to catch up with Clinton’s delegate count, particularly because delegates are allocated proportionally. The former secretary of state has already amassed 1,711 of the 2,383 delegates she would need to clinch the nomination, according to CNN estimates, while Sanders has notched 952 delegates to date. That means he would need to win 75% of the remaining pledged delegates to defeat her.
In an effort to boost participation in Washington, Clinton’s campaign had mailed Washington’s version of absentee ballots — known as “surrogate affidavits” — and postage-paid return envelopes to allow voters who cannot show up to caucus to participate if they have a work schedule conflict, are serving in the military or are hampered from caucusing because of illness or a disability.
In a sign of the energy and interest in the contest, some 35,000 of those absentee ballots were returned, compared with just a couple of hundred in past years, Raad said. In yet another sign of larger-than expected turnout, at least 119,000 people had pre-registered to caucus as of Friday.
“We may approach the numbers that we had in 2008,” Raad said, alluding to the 250,000 voters who turned out during the 2008 contest. “We think that there is going to be incredible turnout.”
That excitement, marked by a large rally at Seattle’s Safeco Field Friday evening, is something Sanders is counting on Saturday and beyond.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said Sanders wins in small and medium-sized states “almost certainly will not be enough to derail Clinton from the nomination,” but adds there’s more to it for the Vermont senator.
“For all practical purposes, winning states like these are talking points for Sanders,” Schnur said. “But for what he’s after at this point, talking points might be good enough. In other words, winning Alaska and Hawaii isn’t going to keep Clinton from getting the nomination, but it keeps his supporters enthused; it keeps the money coming in; and allows him to continue having a platform.”
During a rally in Spokane this week, Sanders urged his supporters to turn out in droves on Saturday, noting that his campaign had taken steps toward closing the delegate gap with Clinton in Utah and Idaho.
“There will be a lot of delegates at stake here in Washington,” Sanders said in Spokane. “If you and all Washingtonians come out on Saturday, we will win a major victory here and Washington will be a major step to the White House.”
Because of the strength of her position, Clinton has increasingly pivoted away from the primary contest toward the general election contest, spending much of the week, for example, highlighting her approach to dealing with ISIS in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium.
“Understand that this is not just a contest between different candidates, this is a contest about fundamentally different views of our country our values and our future,” she said during a rally in Seattle earlier this week.
Polling has been scarce in Hawaii and Alaska, making it difficult to predict the outcome of those contests, but Sanders is outspending Clinton on the airwaves. Sanders’s wife Jane campaigned in Hawaii last Sunday and Monday with popular Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who broke with Democratic Party leadership to show her support for Sanders.
But Clinton’s ties to Hawaii date back to 1992 when she campaigned in Honolulu for her husband. Her campaign is well organized in Hawaii and she has racked up endorsements from key state leaders including Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, as well as former Gov. George Ariyoshi.
This week Sanders released an emotional ad featuring Gabbard, who served a 12-month tour in Iraq, talking about the importance of Sanders’s vote against the Iraq War and his pledge to “take the trillions of dollars that are sent on these interventionist, regime change, unnecessary wars, and invest it here at home.”
“The American people are not looking to settle for inches,” Gabbard says in the ad. “They’re looking for real change.”
CNN’s Sara Sidner in Seattle, Paul Vercammen in Anchorage, Jason Carroll in Olympia, Washington; and Kevin Bohn, Elizabeth Landers, Brianna Keiler and Dan Merica contributed to this report.