Politics·Analysis

Why Bernie Sanders loss is still a win for some left-leaning Democrats

While victory ultimately eluded him, Bernie Sanders surprised many observers with his success during the Democratic presidential nomination race. He was able to move the party and his rival, Hillary Clinton, to the left, a feat that might be his most significant legacy of the primary season.

On Tuesday, Sanders officially endorsed Hillary Clinton for president

Senator Bernie Sanders endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday. He surprised many observers with his political success and he was able to move the party and Clinton to the political left. (Jim Cole/Associated Press)

One can hear it in the voice of Babes for Bernie founder Kathleen Graves, the sense of profound sadness that her candidate, the senator from Vermont, decided to officially endorse Hillary Clinton for president.

Sanders is owed respect, she said, and supporters should collect their thoughts before ripping up their bumper stickers. But his backing of a candidate who is held in such contempt by many Sanders supporters was still difficult to accept.

"I'm not going to lie, it is a bitter pill to swallow, especially before the convention," she said. "I was sort of assuming that this was sort of an eventuality. But I would have preferred it to wait."

It's a sentiment likely shared by many Sanders supporters who had such hopes for their long-shot anti-establishment candidate. While garnering a significant and passionate following, particularly among young voters, drawing large, spirited crowds and racking up a string of primary wins, the self-described democratic socialist was always going to have a tough time breaking through the Democratic Party establishment.

'Won everything but the nomination'

But while victory eluded him, Sanders surprised many observers with the extent of his success in the nomination race, and he was able to move the party and Clinton to the political left, a feat that might be his most significant legacy of the primary contest.

If you look at the platform the party adopted and Hillary's positions on the issues over the course of the campaign, Bernie Sanders made this a progressive campaign.- Democratic strategist Brad Bannon

"The way I look at it, Bernie Sanders won everything but the nomination," said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

"He framed the issues in the campaign. If you look at the platform the party adopted and Hillary's positions on the issues over the course of the campaign, Bernie Sanders made this a progressive campaign."

Sanders, whose attacks on Wall Street and income inequality made him a champion of progressives, injected competition into a race that had virtually anointed Clinton as the Democratic nominee when the primary season began.

Sanders, whose attacks on Wall Street and income inequality made him a champion among progressives, injected competition into a race that had virtually anointed Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee when the primary season began. (Craig Ruttle/Associated Press)

"Clinton beat him decisively, but he still did a lot better than he would have expected," said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He became her chief rival quickly in the campaign." 

Trailing Clinton by 57 percentage points when he entered the race, Sanders, who sits as an Independent in the U.S. Senate but campaigned as a Democrat, was able to narrow polls within 12 points, said Harry Enten of the statistical analytics website FiveThirtyEight.com. 

"No candidate since 1972 started that far down to a front-runner and came so close to winning," he wrote. And he won 22 primaries and caucuses "with virtually all party elites lined up against him."

Kondik said Sanders provided "an unexpected level of competition" in the Democratic nomination race and "deserves a lot of credit for that."

"I think competition is good," he said. "I think it's good for the public, and I think it's good for the candidates, whether they know it or not."

'Most progressive platform'

Sanders grassroots campaign also raised more than $200 million US, mostly from small donations.

In terms of policy, he was able to secure certain concessions from the party and he declared victory over the weekend, announcing that the party's platform committee had agreed to adopt "the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party."

Those concessions included a pledge for a $15 federal minimum wage, a call for the Department of Justice to investigate all shootings involving police officers, an end to the death penalty and plans to expand public health care and make public colleges and universities tuition-free for students from lower income bracket.

According to senior policy adviser Warren Gunnels, the Sanders camp got about 80 per cent of what they wanted in the platform. 

But Sanders did take a significant loss by failing to strike a deal that would see the party explicitly oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. He was unable to get an official commitment for a carbon tax and a national ban on fracking. And his team failed to add language in a section on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calling for "an end to occupation and illegal settlements."

Although Sanders made impressive inroads, he failed to attract large segments of the party. Clinton cleaned up among registered Democrats. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

As well, the platform still must be voted on at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia later this month, and none of it is binding on Clinton.

It's got to be disappointing that while he did a lot better than he hoped, he didn't do it.-  Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics

Although Sanders made impressive inroads, he failed to attract large segments of the party to his camp. Clinton cleaned up among registered Democrats. Sanders supporters were mostly white, upper-middle class, unaffiliated left-leaning young people, said Matthew Baum, a professor of public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"I still don't think there are anywhere near enough of such voters to elect somebody who calls themselves a socialist," Baum said.

Kondik said the campaign was likely the highlight of Sanders's long political life.

"It's got to be disappointing that while he did a lot better than he hoped, he didn't do it," he said.

Sanders's political future

As for his political future, Sanders built a strong base and gained a lot of national name recognition, meaning he'll continue to be a strong progressive voice, said Bannon.

But it's highly unlikely that the most successful independent U.S. politician of all time will become a machine Democrat. Instead, he will probably continue to play the role of the outsider, which he has always been, said Baum.

"I'd be surprised if he became a mainstream party stalwart," he said. "It seems to me, he's been doing this for a very long time, and he is how he is, and I doubt that's going to fundamentally change." 

with files from Meagan Fitzpatrick, the Associated Press

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