Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders scored a stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in Hawaii Democrats’ presidential preference poll Saturday, mobilizing a grass-roots campaign that signed up thousands of new Democrats and defied the wishes of almost the entire “old guard” of the party.
The Sanders victory in Hawaii capped a three-state sweep Saturday that showed his campaign continues to mount an unexpectedly potent alternative to former Secretary of State Clinton’s presidential bid. Sanders was also victorious in Washington and Alaska.
A number of Hawaii residents complained the party’s voting was cut off too early, leaving dozens of people who arrived late standing around in school parking lots without an opportunity to participate. Party officials had announced the polling would start at 1 p.m. but never explained when the voting would end, which caused confusion.
Sanders dominated the race with 70 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 30 percent, with 100 percent of the precincts counted. Turnout was expected to be strong and did not disappoint with 33,716 votes counted. The remaining precincts to be counted late Saturday night were on Oahu, officials said.
Based on the totals, Sanders won 17 delegates and Clinton won eight.
In a statement issued after the preliminary results showed a lopsided victory, Sanders said: “I want to thank the people of Hawaii for their strong support and for turning out in huge numbers for Saturday’s caucuses. Nobody should have any doubt that this campaign has extraordinary momentum and that we have a path toward victory. In state after state, our grassroots effort has taken on the entire political establishment.”
Almost all of Hawaii’s Democratic establishment had endorsed Clinton, including former Govs. George Ariyoshi, Ben Cayetano and John Waihee, U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, among others.
The Sanders campaign countered by sending a half-dozen professional campaign staffers to Hawaii to organize telephone banks and an online voter registration push that targeted younger voters, where Sanders has strong appeal.
Democratic Party officials reported 7,000 new members have signed up since late last year, and most of those new members are believed to be Sanders supporters.
Bart Dame, authorized representative for the Sanders campaign, predicted even before the vote was announced that Saturday’s balloting would represent an important psychological victory for the Sanders camp.
“The national Clinton campaign, aided by many media outlets, are trying to say that Sanders should fold his tent and accept defeat and rally behind Clinton, but those of us active in the campaign believe that is premature, and that’s a form of psychological warfare,” Dame said. “We believe that Bernie still has a chance to win.”
As the date for the Hawaii voting approached, both campaigns rolled out slick direct-mail pieces and professional television advertising, with Sanders’ ads featuring popular U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
Friends Aaron Toyama, 28, and Robert Young, 28, showed up at Highlands Intermediate School in Pearl City to vote for Sanders because they support his social policies. Toyama, a machinist and Pearl City resident, added that Sanders fights for the middle class.
“He’s been for the people since he started in office,” said Toyama, who sported a Sanders “A Future to Believe In” pin on his shirt.
Graham Watt, a Pacific Palisades resident and information technologist, said he was not surprised by the high turnout at Highlands Intermediate, where he cast a vote for Clinton.
“While I appreciate that Bernie Sanders is … energizing the discussion, I’m not with it because I’m not sure how he will implement it,” said Watt, 47. “(Clinton) is a bit more to the middle. She is more of a moderate.”
The Clinton campaign focused more on coaxing existing, mainstream party members to turn out for voting than on signing up new members. The Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers unions endorsed Clinton and were helpful in mobilizing party members to vote, according to Clinton campaign volunteer Ember Shinn.
Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said the local Democratic Party leadership was solidly behind Clinton, and she had every expectation of winning Hawaii because “this is a very mainstream Democratic state, kind of a bread-and-butter Democratic state where the progressive caucus tends to be somewhat small and weak.”
The large turnout by younger voters appeared to be critical. “Bernie seems very genuine to millennials,” Moore said, adding that his public image, down to his somewhat unkempt appearance and his “cranky personality,” make him seem real.
“Millennials are just tremendously sophisticated consumers of the media, and I think a lot of them who have grown up around Hillary Clinton sort of think of her as a phony, and Bernie just really seems genuine,” Moore said.
“He has a very clear message. Pretty much it’s all about inequality … which is a message that really resonates with a lot of young people who are children of the recession, who face crippling student debt,” Moore said. “Those issues, for them, he’s really speaking to them.”
Moore also said the young people who turned out for Sanders are likely to become party activists who could end up reshaping the Hawaii Democratic Party. People who get involved in politics at a young age tend to stay engaged, he said.
Party officials had braced for a record turnout that would exceed the 37,519 who gathered in 2008 to support Hawaii-born Barack Obama for president. The turnout lived up to those expectations, with long lines at many polling places.
The lines proved to be too much for Kailua resident Katie Fout, who said she gave up and left Kailua Intermediate School without voting after a half-hour of being shuffled from one line to the next.
The cafeteria was hot and crowded, there was no signage to tell people where to go, and the event seemed very disorganized, said Fout, who had never voted at a presidential preference poll before.
Before she left, she approached a table of volunteers for Clinton. “I said, ‘I was going to vote for her, but I can’t do this today,’” she said. “I said, ‘If you have any pull in the party, you need to talk to somebody. This is crazy.’”
There were also a number of complaints Saturday about sites that halted the voting too early.
The voting ended at 2:30 p.m. at Manoa Elementary School, which prevented Dr. Danelo Canete and his wife from voting. Canete, a Clinton supporter, said his son voted earlier in the afternoon and reported there were lines at the school. Canete and his wife decided to wait for a while to allow the lines to go down.
When they reached the school at 2:34 p.m., they were told the voting was finished. He said about a dozen people had been turned away and were standing outside the school while he was there.
“There were a whole bunch of people who were very upset,” Canete said. “We were all kind of shaking our heads, like, what happened? Nobody had put down a closing time, so we just thought we’d show up like good citizens and vote.”
Similar complaints were made about an early end to voting at The Key Project in Kaneohe, Wilson Elementary School in east Honolulu and Kaala Elementary School in Wahiawa. Officials made arrangements for some voters who arrived late at Highlands Intermediate to vote “provisional ballots.” Party officials will decide later whether those votes will be counted.
Stephanie Ohigashi, state Democratic Party chairwoman, said polls were kept open at half-hour intervals; if no one came in for half an hour, the poll closed. Ohigashi said she did not know how many potential voters may have been turned away.
“The sheer number of people who came out and the kind of interest this election has brought on has caused us to take extra steps to get the correct results,” Ohigashi said after the party released vote tallies from 88 percent of the precincts.
Aiea resident Kristin Billington arrived at Alvah A. Scott Elementary School at 3 p.m. to find almost all party officials had already left. About two dozen frustrated people were standing in the parking lot, including one elderly woman who told Billington that when she tried to vote late, party officials “closed the door in her face,” Billington said.
“Everybody was really angry. There were groups of people standing around the parking lot really mad,” she said.
Saturday’s preference poll will help decide which candidates will get the support of most of Hawaii’s delegates this summer at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Hawaii will send 34 delegates to Philadelphia, including nine superdelegates who are free to support their favorite candidate regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s presidential preference poll.
Five of those Hawaii superdelegates have already publicly announced they will support Clinton, including Hirono, Schatz and Takai. Also supporting Clinton is National Committeewoman Jadine Nielsen and former HGEA leader Russell Okata.
Gabbard, another superdelegate, backs Sanders and has campaigned for him on the mainland.
Dame predicted that all attention in Hawaii political circles would turn to those superdelegates who have publicly committed to Clinton.
“People will be wondering why, if Bernie won a majority of the vote, should he not get a proportionate majority of the delegates? And isn’t it undemocratic that superdelegates can thwart the will of the voters?” Dame asked. “So, I think there will be some moral pressure on Hawaii’s superdelegates.”
Reed Millar, Hawaii coordinator for the Sanders campaign, said the victory Saturday bodes well for upcoming races.
“Bernie has won five of the last six states and picked up a lot of momentum,” he said. “We’re happy with the way things are going. Winning here is important. It’s the most diverse state in the country and that says a lot about how we’ve been building and growing and it speaks to what will happen in the states to come like New York and California.”
Star-Advertiser reporters Michael Tsai, Dan Nakaso and Jayna Omaye contributed to this report.