SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Bernie Sanders appears to have had a big night at Utah's first-ever presidential preference caucus.
Returns late Tuesday showed the Vermont Democrat well ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Early results gave Sanders a 75 percent to 25 percent advantage over Clinton.
"From the initial votes that are coming in, it looks like Bernie Sanders is in the lead at this point," said Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon, as caucus workers began counting an estimated 80,000 hand-marked paper ballots.
The party intends to announce final results and allocate its 37 delegates at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
The Sanders campaign said it was excited about the returns so far.
"We so appreciate the outpouring of support from Utah. We still have a long way to go to finish counting. But we're very encouraged by what we are seeing," said spokesman Monte Jarvis.
Outside Emerson Elementary School, where people parked more than half-mile away and stood in line for more than two hours to vote, a Sanders party broke out at times.
"I haven't heard a single person say the word Hillary," said Ryan Taylorton, after casting his ballot for Sanders. "I've heard everyone scream Bernie. There's been cars driving up and down the street and they're honking and screaming Bernie. It feels like the Bernie rally."
Taylorton was among an estimated 14,000 people who attended a Sanders campaign event last Friday at This Is the Place Heritage Park. Sanders spoke to several thousand more at West High School on Monday.
"I've been following politics off and on for a little bit, but it seems like it's increasingly a billionaire's club to play politics and he is trying to change that," Taylorton said.
Clinton did not visit the state ahead of the caucus, sending her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, to speak to gatherings of Democrats, Latinos and women.
The Clinton campaign in a memo last week wrote that it expects Sanders to win the caucus in Utah and several other states in March, but its pledged delegate lead is so commanding that it would have little impact on the race.
Daniel Magpali, 38, a Seattle recent transplant, seemed to be in the minority at Emerson Elementary with his vote for Clinton.
"I think she has the qualifications. She's a global leader. She would possibly be our first female president, which I think is really important," he said.
Magpali said the high turnout made him feel like Democrats really want to be involved in a red state.
Corroon said he hopes the momentum carries into November. A Democratic presidential candidate has not taken Utah since 1964.
"I think people were excited in a positive way about the Democratic candidates that we have. I think they were angry in a negative way about some of the Republican candidates that were out there," Corroon said.
Sanford Bashear proudly displayed his "Veterans for Hillary" button. A retired lawyer, he said he has known Clinton for 40 years and that she feels a great sense of duty.
But "I don't think Clinton will ever win a contested election in Utah," he said.
A Deseret News/KSL poll released last week has both Clinton and Sanders besting Republican front-runner Donald Trump if the general election were held today.
Megan Peters, a 23-year-old recent Westminster College grad, doesn't consider herself politically active. "But this time around, there are candidates you can get behind or candidates you could be against," she said.29 comments on this story
And she's with Sanders because "a lot of what he says is common sense. It's not harmful or hateful. It's what everybody wants to see happen," Peters said.
Neil Cotter, a University of Utah electrical and computer engineer instructor, said he's worried about the state of politics in the nation.
"With things stagnating, we do need to change or things perhaps are going to get very unsettled in the country," he said. "I wanted to vote for Bernie Sanders for more radical change."