Nevertheless, Sanders vastly exceeded expectations. He convened massive rallies and filled stadiums to the point of overflowing, showing that stubborn insistence can register as charisma on the campaign trail. He did the unthinkable by raising millions of dollars and running a competitive presidential campaign while shunning super PACs. His fundraising strategy alone could serve as a powerful model for future candidates.
While Sanders worked to push the Democratic Party in a progressive direction, it remains to be seen how much of an lasting impact that effort will ultimately have. At the very least, his campaign demonstrated widespread enthusiasm for populism and an intense desire to reject the political status quo, particularly among a younger generation of voters who flocked to support the senator.
It is remarkable that a self-described democratic socialist managed to get so close to the White House in a country that so ardently proclaims its adoration for free markets. Sanders did not prove that embracing socialism is a winning proposition, but he showed that the label is not politically toxic either.
More broadly, the senator challenged Americans to rethink what it means to be radical, arguing that ideas often relegated to the fringe should be considered common sense. “Health care should be a right of all people, not a privilege,” Sanders declared in a speech intended to explain his vision of Democratic socialism in November of last year. “This is not a radical idea.”
It was a highly improbable rise. When he launched his White House bid, Sanders seemed to have been overlooked by the people who should have been his natural allies. Democracy for America and MoveOn.org, progressive groups that later endorsed Sanders, spent the weeks leading up to his presidential announcement trying to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president.
Even Sanders publicly expressed doubt over whether he could achieve his aims. He promised to raise money through “small, individual contributions,” before musing aloud during a press conference “whether it is possible for any candidate, who is not a billionaire, or who is not beholden to the billionaire class, to be able to run successful campaigns.” Later in the campaign, Sanders told supporters that when he entered the race, his “greatest fear was that if we did not do well that it would be a setback not just for me, but for the ideas driving our campaign.”
Despite his concerns, Sanders succeeded in bringing attention to a progressive agenda during his presidential run, and Clinton ultimately embraced some of the ideas he championed. Following Sanders’s lead, Clinton came out in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal supported by President Obama, and the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline. In the past week, Clinton embraced ideas that Sanders has championed to expand access to health care and make higher education more affordable.