At 10pm on 7 June, the night of the California primary, things looked dire for Bernie Sanders.
Hillary Clinton had claimed victory hours earlier, having clinched the requisite number of delegates to win the nomination. President Obama had put out a press release congratulating her on winning, and adding that Sanders would be meeting with him at the White House – “at the senator’s request” – to discuss going forward. A New York Times story had just come out claiming the campaign was about to shed half of its staff.
He was due to speak in Santa Monica, a half-hour’s drive away, but outside the Sheraton in Universal City, in Los Angeles, Sanders’ motorcade idled. On the press bus, the rumour was that the senator must be hastily penning a concession speech.
It had been quite a journey.
When the well-liked but obscure 74-year-old senator formally launched his quixotic presidential bid on 26 May, 2015 at a modest but festive rally featuring free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in his home town of Burlington, Vermont, nobody foresaw the earthquake he would come to cause within the Democratic party.
But in the year that followed, Sanders would hold Hillary Clinton – possibly the best-prepared and best-funded primary candidate the party has ever seen – to a near-tie in pledged delegates, winning primaries or caucuses in 22 states.
He outstripped even Barack Obama’s historic 2008 primary insurgency in small-donation fundraising, and raised millions of dollars more than Clinton in January, February, and March of 2016.
An unabashed self-described socialist, he has single-handedly rehabilitated the term. At rallies, he loved to ask his audience “and do you know the average size of a donation to my campaign?” to which they would joyfully shout back the answer: “twenty-seven dollars!”
He filled sports stadiums to capacity, turning out 15 or 20,000 people at a time, wearing “feel the Bern” caps and t-shirts and pins. His campaign ran what might be the finest political TV ad of all time, which became a viral sensation in its own right.
Despite this farcical success, the mathematics of delegates was against him. Clinton’s victories in the New Jersey and California primaries on June 7 clinched her the nomination, though she only reached the magic number of 2,383 delegates because of the 581 “superdelegates”, party luminaries not beholden to a vote in any state, that have pledged fealty to her.
But Sanders has dramatically changed Democratic politics.
Clinton, a former secretary of state and first lady to president Bill Clinton during the height of the internationalist free trade political project of the 1990s, is a moderate, an arch-pragmatist.
Having Sanders nipping at her heels not only denied her a political coronation; his presence in the race and his undeniable popularity with voters dragged her to the left on a large number of issues, and pulled many more into the political conversation that might have remained largely absent.
On education, on healthcare, on the minimum wage, on income inequality, Sanders changed the conversation.
Finding herself unexpectedly outflanked on the left, Clinton tacked hard in Sanders’ direction. She announced stricter rules on Wall Street banks – a particular Achilles’ heel for Clinton, whom Sanders has painted as a friend to the big banks. She switched from tacitly supporting to outright opposing the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.
She now opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal she once described as a “gold standard”. She has become vocal about her support for a federal minimum wage, and about opposing the private prison industry.
All of these were key Sanders issues, and while Clinton surrogates claim that Hillary has not directly followed his lead on these topic areas it is unlikely that they would have played even nearly as central a role as they have in this campaign had Sanders not been stirring them up day after day.
The wider story of the 2016 campaign is that much of the received wisdom of American politics is now in ruins. When Sanders announced his campaign, it looked like both primaries would be essential formalities before establishment figures – Clinton, and Jeb Bush, or someone similar – could be coronated.
But the political rulebook was torn up, as primary voters on both sides reacted viscerally against party elites. On the Republican side, Trump’s populist insurgency felled all opposition, and Sanders’ improbable success sprung to some extent from the same wellspring of frustration.
Both were perceived as outsiders, despite Sanders’ long career in politics, because both rejected the niceties of normal political rhetoric in favour of revolutionary, Schumpeterian narratives. Both Trump and Sanders attacked the political system as rigged and unfair.
That both movements occurred simultaneously was no accident. The American electorate, both on the left and on the right, was rejecting politics-as-usual with stunning fervor.
On the night of the California primary it was almost 11, with a chill breeze in the air, before Sanders emerged from the Sheraton. Though the California votes were still being counted and would be for some time, it was clear that he had lost the state.
The motorcade sped to his final rally of a punishing two weeks of campaigning in California, as the journalists on the bus speculated about how he might phrase his concession.
But he did not concede. Instead, in an aircraft hangar in Santa Monica which whipped his supporters cries into something approaching a satanic howl, Sanders vowed to fight on to the bitter end. The crowd responded with joy.
It may have been a smart move. Sanders is now heading towards the convention in Philadelphia in July with an extremely strong hand, and will almost certainly use it to extract even more concessions – true progressives in cabinet positions, for example, or the inclusion of campaign finance reform in the Democratic party’s official platform – from the Democratic party.
The position of Clinton’s running-mate may even be on the table, because though it is unlikely that she would give Sanders himself the veep nod after a campaign in which his contempt for the former secretary of state has often been made very clear, it is certainly the case that putting a progressive figure like Elizabeth Warren would certainly mollify many Sanders backers.
Clinton now faces a thorny problem. Many of Sanders’ supporters have indicated that they might simply not turn out to vote if he is not the nominee, and some have even indicated that they would prefer Trump to Clinton.
She needs Sanders at this point much more than he needs her.