Sen. Bernie Sanders is waging an improbable presidential campaign, but he won’t disappear after this election. Nor will his followers.
The Vermont socialist probably has no more than a 10 percent shot at winning the Democratic nomination.
Yet Sanders, who for the left wing was a consolation choice after Sen. Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t run, has a message that will continue to resonate, especially among young supporters.
Sanders is setting much of the Democratic agenda, forcing Clinton left. Even Republicans have adopted some of his populist rhetoric.
If, as the odds-makers now predict, Clinton wins the nomination and the presidency, Sanders, with two years left in his Senate term, will be looking over her left shoulder. If Democrats cozy up to Wall Street, expect a Sanders-Warren barrage. The so-called bank bailout in 2008 probably prevented the economy from going over the cliff. But Sanders has reinforced a public sense that bankers are making out like bandits while Main Street struggles.
Sanders also has galvanized public outrage over Supreme Court decisions that unleashed a flood of big money into politics. Most Americans agree with him that the U.S. system of money in politics is corrupt. Both President Bill Clinton and Barack Obama paid lip service to campaign-finance reform and then put it on the back burner. Sanders’ campaign ensures that another President Clinton won’t have that luxury.
Some of his radical notions are nonstarters. But the public has moved closer to his view on economic fairness, and his call for free public higher education is a debate that will endure.
Sanders has attracted extraordinary support from young voters, beating Clinton by huge margins. These Americans have grown up in tough times. They’re skeptical about the establishment and the socialist label doesn’t have the negative connotation it does for many older Americans.
The question is whether Sanders will keep these young people politically energized. The last such cause-centric pied piper was Eugene McCarthy in 1968, though he basically checked out of Democratic politics after he lost the presidential nomination.
Katy Harriger, a political scientist at Wake Forest University who has studied the youth vote, thinks Sanders can keep them mobilized on issues such as campaign financing and economic inequality. That engagement could carry to the off-year elections, when participation of young voters traditionally drops off.
Unlike McCarthy, Sanders has been consistently to the left for almost a half-century. Sanders now has a national megaphone that he’s not likely to relinquish. He also will have more than 2 million contributors, mostly small donations, and almost 4 million “likes” on Facebook. In today’s politics, that’s a machine.