It has been an amazing year for outsiders. Within the Republican Party, a real estate mogul with longstanding ties to the Democratic Party is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency, sending shockwaves through the party hierarchy and calling into question almost everything the country thought it knew about what was necessary to win a modern presidential nomination contest. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist from Vermont, has given the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party establishment a similar jolt, as he has managed, much as Donald Trump has done in the Republican contest, to highlight the gap between party elites and large segments of the electorate who are completely turned off to “politics as usual.” Both have tapped into a deep populist resentment—and even anger—against the political and economic (and in Trump’s case, cultural) elites who are viewed as dominating the political landscape. But even after his Utah and Idaho wins on Tuesday, Sanders still trails Clinton by nearly 750 delegates, calling his possible nomination into question.
Sanders and Trump are the symbols of a grassroots rebellion that cuts across traditional party allegiances, and suggests that we might be in the early stages of a new political alignment. From Clinton’s standpoint, the events of the last several weeks must seem like déjà vu all over again. After losing to a Democratic Party newcomer in 2008 who went on to win two terms in the White House, she must certainly believe she is snake bit. Her campaign has weaknesses that even a badly divided Republican Party may still be able to exploit (notably the lack of enthusiasm amongst younger voters)—if it can get its act together.
Of course, Sanders is hardly in the same position as Trump, as the latter appears very much on the verge of winning the Republican nomination, in spite of desperate efforts by the party establishment to halt this runaway train. If “normal” political dynamics were to prevail over the next few months, it is nearly impossible to see how Sanders could win the Democratic nomination. He certainly had a good run, winning New Hampshire and Michigan, nearly winning Missouri and Illinois, and doing well in a few other caucus states—like Utah and Idaho by massive margins. But Clinton is far ahead in the delegate count, she has an almost complete lock on the super delegates, and there is little reason to think that fundamental dynamic will change.
Sanders almost surely sees things somewhat differently, though—or, at least, he should see things differently. To the extent Sanders sees himself, like Trump, as the leader of a broader social movement, he has absolutely no reason to quit. Nor is there any reason to think he will quit. Before the end of the primary season, Sanders has the opportunity to continue the process of remaking the Democratic Party in a much more populist and progressive direction, creating in effect a full-fledged, left-wing social Democratic Party much closer to his ideals and those of groups like Occupy Wall Street with their anti-corporate, anti-Wall Street focus. Sanders supporters view Clinton and the elites within the Democratic Party as irretrievably beholden to Wall Street, multinational corporations, and high technology. Sanders sees himself as working toward something more important than a presidential nomination, but rather, reshaping the contours of American politics for the next several decades. And, when Sanders supporters look at Clinton, they are likely to see, fairly or not, someone interested in the acquisition of power for the sake of power.
Sanders still has substantial opportunities to continue to advance his cause over the next few months. Following the Western Super Tuesday, the nomination fight has a bit of a hiatus, with the next primary halting until April 5 in Wisconsin. Madison should be an electoral gold mine for Sanders, and even if he doesn’t end up carrying Wisconsin, he will surely put on a respectable showing. Indeed, while polling has been rather sparse in Wisconsin, one just-released survey by Emerson College shows Clinton and Sanders neck and neck, with Clinton leading by just 6 points (5% margin of error).
While Clinton will assuredly win New York, Sanders should do well in a number of the states following New York on April 26 (Connecticut and Rhode Island, and possibly Pennsylvania), plus California on June 7, the biggest prize of all. Of course, by then Clinton is likely to have long since wrapped up the nomination since she begins the final stretch run with a massive delegate lead, but Sanders’ continuation in the race will give added credibility to his cause and give him additional clout at the convention in shaping the party platform. In order to pacify Sanders’ supporters, Clinton may find it the better part of valor to go along with much, if not necessarily all, of what Sanders and his people want. Seemingly arcane fights over platforms become fights about the future of the party, and so for Sanders, the stakes are high.
But there are much more pragmatic and short-term reasons for Sanders to stay in the race. It is something Democrats seem averse to talking about (and has Republicans salivating) but remains the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room: Sometime in the next several weeks, it’ll be evident what will come of the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails, and the much-less discussed Clinton Foundation controversies, the latter questioning whether Clinton, in her capacity as secretary of state, helped promote the Foundation in illegal ways.
In the very unlikely event that the Justice Department indicted Clinton, clearly all bets are off. It would be unlikely for Clinton to survive such a blow, in which case Sanders would be extraordinarily well positioned to get the nomination. Yes, there is talk that the party elites would turn to Joe Biden or even Elizabeth Warren in such an eventuality, but would the party really nominate someone who had not participated in the primaries when there is a legitimate contender waiting in the wings who has been through the process? Just as many Republicans worry that such a move by anti-Trump forces could completely fracture the party, Democrats who have their wits about them must surely be pondering the very same possibility for their own side.
Now, the chances of a Clinton indictment are probably exceedingly small, unless there is evidence uncovered by the FBI that hasn’t been in the public eye. But even were the FBI to recommend an indictment, the chances of the Justice Department actually prosecuting seem somewhere between slim and none. But assuming no indictment, the very spectacle of word leaking out that the FBI had been rebuffed in its recommendation of indictment, or if one or more Clinton aides get legally entangled in the server controversy, Clinton could be so damaged that her prospects against even someone like Trump in the general election would be seriously compromised. Under those circumstances, the party might then decide that Sanders is basically the only game left in town. Will any of these possibilities occur? There are only a few who know (FBI Director James Comey, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and President Obama, among a handful of others), and they aren’t talking. Anything less than complete exoneration of Clinton and her staff will leave her vulnerable to attack from Republicans, if not from Sanders himself.
No one would have thought even just a few months ago that the 2016 presidential contest would develop as it has. And with the general election still more than seven months away, there are almost assuredly more surprises in store for the candidates—and the voters. The left-wing social movement hasn’t flamed out yet—quite the opposite—so if you are Bernie Sanders, and still have the resources to stay in the race to the end, why not hang in and see what happens?
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the senior associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.