The success of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 political campaign depends on how you judge his goals.
The Vermont senator’s bid for ferment a “political revolution” failed. The establishment, in the person of Hillary Clinton, remains atop the Democratic Party. Sanders is now helping hold her up.
But Sanders accomplished the lesser, yet still notable, goal of nudging the Democratic Party left and calling attention to the enduring popularity among Democratic voters of the populist, pro-union positions he has pushed. Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign is among other things an example of sound negotiating. By pursuing “political revolution,” with proposals like “Medicare for all,” the Vermont senator forced Clinton to evolve.
Sanders, who finally ended his challenge to Clinton by endorsing her Tuesday, did not ultimately upend the status quo within his party. He helped adjust it, and in some ways abetted it; his supporters are already helping Democratic candidates for lesser offices raise cash.
Sanders can claim partial credit for both Clinton and President Obama embracing plans to expand Medicare to provide a public option under Obamacare. During her appearance with Sanders on Tuesday, Clinton herself listed issues where the challenger pushed her leftward, vowing to oppose trade deals include the Trans-Pacific Partnership, raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and overhaul the campaign finance system.
Sanders won concessions from Clinton in the Democratic Party’s convention platform as well, including a provision advocating free higher education for children of families earning less than $125,000. That marked a move by Clinton toward Sanders’ call for free college.
"These aren't just my fights,” Clinton said. “These are Bernie's fights. These are America's fights.”
Clinton and her party are appropriating not only Sanders’ issues but also his voters. Sanders’ endorsement looks set to accelerate an existing trend of his backers coming around to Clinton: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll late last month found that 45% of Sanders’ supporters had a positive view of Clinton, while 33% viewed her negatively. A month earlier the positive negative split was 38% versus 41%.
Democrats are also moving quickly to hook Sanders’ vaunted grassroots fundraising machine up to the party apparatus, with his donor lists tapped for Clinton and Democrats seeking and defending congressional seats. After her event with Sanders Tuesday, Clinton’s campaign sent supporters a text asking for $27 donations—a nod to the low average donation Sanders has bragged about relying on.
Democrats in fact began tapping the Sanders network months ago. Through the end of the first quarter of this year, the last time campaigns reported fundraising totals, nine nonincumbent Democrats seeking Senate seats had raised more than 20% of their campaign cash from small donations, according to numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Eight Democratic challengers have raised more than $800,000 via such donations. No Republican Senate candidate, incumbent or hopeful, has pulled in similar numbers from small donations.
That advantage is partly attributable to Democrats’ use of ActBlue, an online fundraising platform where many Sanders supporters have saved their credit card accounts. Other Democrats can use the database to reach out to Bernie backers, who can contribute with a click.
“He can help the candidates out, sending out emails for folks to talk about issues that are important,” Montana Senator John Tester, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said recently. “He absolutely is an asset to the caucus and to our efforts.”
Such contributions have helped Democratic challengers like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada trounce GOP opponents in money raised from small donors. Grassroots support has also helped Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold, whom Sanders has already helped raise money, edge Sen. Ron Johnson in fundraising in a rematch of their 2010 fight.
Sanders is expected now to increase his help, particularly via fundraising, for House and Senate candidates.
In helping Democrats rake in cash and in contributing policy plans that Clinton has adopted, the Vermont senator is working within, not against, the system he spent much of his campaign attacking.
Clinton seems to appreciate that reality Tuesday.
"I can't help but say how much more enjoyable this election is going to be when we are on the same side,” she said. “You know what? We are stronger together.”