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Bernie Sanders can still lead a political revolution — even if he loses

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally In Chicago Ahead Of Illinois Primary Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign was about starting a revolution. Having lost by landslides across the South and having been defeated in New York and most of the rest of the northeast, he simply can't catch Hillary Clinton's delegate lead.

But his campaign greatly exceeded expectations and showed that the kind of politics he represents is considerably more viable and mainstream than most of us in the press realized. He showed that there's a coalition ready to support and finance candidates that embrace a more democratic style of politics than mainstream Democrats thought possible.

It's a young coalition whose clout and power will only grow in years to come. Now it's time for Bernie to point the revolution in a new direction and lay groundwork for the future.

In concrete terms, Sanders impacted the course of the 2016 election by forcing Hillary Clinton to the left on a number of issues and by gaining widespread exposure for a few of his key ideas — especially free college — but it's increasingly difficult to see how he can take the Democratic nomination from Clinton's grasp.

She is too well-liked by the Democratic base, and Sanders simply lacks the support among African Americans, Latinos, and older Democratic Party loyalists to beat her. White liberals are a powerful force in Democratic Party politics, but they're not nearly enough to win the nomination this year.

A few months ago, Sanders stood in a swamp outside the Capitol and casually told a handful of reporters he was launching what amounted to a novelty bid for president. Now he attracts huge crowds to his rallies, garners press coverage for his policy statements, and raises unprecedented sums of money from a grassroots army.

Whatever he does over the next few weeks, the important question about Sanders's future is what can he do with that movement? Can he direct money and enthusiasm down ballot, where liberals have been badly failing? Can he deploy his revolution to reshape Democratic politics from the ground up? If so, he'll make a much bigger impact than anything he can conceivably achieve from here on out in the primary.

Bernie's amazing campaign finance engine is the prize

Bernie Sanders is a fundraising juggernaut, and his performance on Tuesday night probably doesn't change that.

Sanders built a following of dedicated mini donors who gave $20 million in January and then $40 million more in February. The crowd goes wild at events when Sanders points out he doesn't have a Super PAC, and his average donor gives $27.

A conventional campaign that had fallen behind the frontrunner on this scale would find itself abandoned by bundlers and big-money donors, and essentially forced to fold up shop. It's possible that Sanders's donors will abandon him, and certainly likely that there'll be a drop-off from a $40 million-a-month pace, but it also seems perfectly plausible that if Sanders wants to encourage them to believe he's still in the fight, he'll be able to raise tens of millions more and pour the cash into an expensive air war in California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other outstanding states.

That will be a hassle for Clinton, who will likely have to somewhat delay implementing her general election strategy in response, and could be a nice moneymaker for Sanders's consultants and vendors. But unlike on-the-ground organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts, it's extremely unlikely to do anything at all to advance Sanders's ideas.

Sanders should pivot to his post-presidential strategy

The smarter play for Sanders would be to start looking past his presidential campaign to an idea that's always been integral to his political revolution but that never genuinely required him to win a presidential election: mobilizing young liberals to vote every two years rather than skipping midterms.

Trying to explain how a Sanders administration would differ from an Obama administration without being sharply critical of Obama, Sanders once explained that the "biggest political mistake that [Obama] made is after his brilliant campaign in 2008, he basically said to the millions of people who supported him, 'Thanks for getting me elected, I will take it from here.' I will not make that mistake."

This was a bit unfair — Obama did keep his political apparatus going, and it did real work — but Sanders's critique contains an important element of truth.

Obama's calculation upon entering the White House was that to try to lead a mass movement that would, among other things, criticize Democrats from the left would be toxic to his relationship with his own party's members of Congress. That required him to substantially demobilize the movement.

One can see arguments for both Sanders's view that this was a mistake and for Obama's view that it was the best option, but the important thing is that, having lost the primary, Sanders doesn't actually face this choice.

His supporters may not be a national majority of Democrats. But there are a large number of them. They are disproportionately well-educated and engaged with politics, disproportionately likely to actually give money or attend a rally, and disproportionately likely to live in places that are represented in Congress by Democrats.

If rather than waste money on more TV ads, Sanders starts raising funds to build an enduring activist infrastructure, he could do an enormous amount to help anchor the progressive flank of the Democratic Party in Congress.

Other candidates need Bernie's money more

The Sanders campaign has been a fascinating proof of concept for a grassroots, left-wing politics that eschews the typical Washington money machine. But even if Sanders were winning the nomination, the big question hanging over this style of politics would be the same one that hangs over everything the millennial generation touches in politics: Does it extend behind races for the presidency?

Throughout the Obama era, liberals — especially young ones — have simply done a miserable job of showing up to vote in midterm elections. And though young liberals do vote for down-ballot candidates when they show up to vote in presidential elections, they're not especially engaged with those races, which is why they don't bother voting in midterms.

An enormous test for both Sanders and his supporters will be whether he can help direct his financial fire hose toward down-ballot candidates for whom it really might be a difference maker. He's already started backing a handful of insurgents who broke with state party leaders to endorse him, but the cause of state and local politics deserves to be taken seriously on its own terms and not just as a proxy in the national fight.

Stalwart progressive Russ Feingold, for example, is trying to recapture his old Wisconsin Senate seat from a sure-to-be well-financed Ron Johnson, and could surely use an avalanche of small-donor money.

Beyond that, there will doubtless be dozens of opportunities for progressive primary challenges in congressional and state races in the next midterm cycle.

Money matters more in relatively obscure races where free media coverage is harder to come by, and small-donor money is difficult to obtain in these races for the same reason. If Sanders can help raise money for these kind of candidates, he'll have a meaningful impact on the 2016 cycle and an even bigger impact on what kinds of candidates get recruited in the first place in 2018, 2020, and beyond.

A revolution takes work

Sanders's vision of a political revolution has always been the most compelling part of his campaign, but also in many ways the least plausible.

Realistically, the way American political institutions work means that change takes time and work, not a single electoral victory followed by some barnstorming. This was bad news for Sanders at the high point of his campaign, but as his odds of victory wane it becomes good news. He has a lot of demographic and ideological tailwinds at his back, and he's proven to be a more impressive national communicator than people realize. There's no reason the work needs to end tonight, but it is unlikely to be effectively carried forward by pouring tons of new resources into a doomed primary campaign.

Sanders's best play now is to try to consider how to create an institutional and financial infrastructure that will carry forward into the future so that other politicians can stand on his shoulders rather than needing to reinvent the wheel.