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Donald Trump is getting all the press, but the Bernie Sanders movement is more important for the future

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Donald Trump, as you have probably heard, is dominating national polls of Republicans who want to lead their party in the 2016 presidential election. As you have likewise probably heard, Hillary Clinton is currently crushing left-wing challenger Bernie Sanders in national polls of Democrats.

What you have probably not heard as much about is that Trump and Sanders have approximately equal levels of public support.

Here's Trump bouncing around in the mid- to low 30s:

And here's Sanders bounding around in the mid- to low 30s:

Trump right now is a few percentage points ahead of Sanders in terms of the number of Republicans backing him versus the number of Democrats backing Sanders. But because there are more Democrats than Republicans in America, Philip Bump of the Washington Post reckons that there are actually slightly more Sanders supporters in America than Trump supporters. Nonetheless, Trump has dominated media coverage of the 2016 campaign while Sanders has largely been a non-factor in coverage since Clinton started handing in solid debate performances.

The reasons for this are not exactly mysterious — Trump is ahead in the polls and might win the GOP nomination, while Sanders is losing badly and clearly won't be the Democratic candidate.

But while the media's priorities are comprehensible, the horse race fact that mainstream Democrats have consolidated around a single champion while the non-Trump Republicans remain badly divided is creating a distorted picture of the real state of the country. Wall-to-wall Trump coverage is, for example, helping boost morale at white supremacist groups, which are now benefiting from a newfound sense of momentum. But while there is clearly significance in the fact that a large minority of Republicans are willing to flock to Trump's banner and the cause of ethnic chauvinism, the reality that an equal number of people are flocking to Sanders's banner and the vision of an expansive Nordic welfare state is equally significant.

Indeed, in terms of analyzing broad trends in American life, the Sanders phenomenon is probably more significant than Trumpism. Trump's supporters, after all, are older than the average Republican, while Sanders's are younger than the average Democrat. The Trump movement is benefiting from an exceptionally chaotic situation among mainstream Republicans, while Sanders is up against the strongest non-incumbent frontrunner in American political history. In the short term, that all means that Trump is more relevant to 2016. But the values that Sanders reflects are likely to grow stronger in future cycles, while Trumpism is likely to grow weaker.