Bernie Sanders is probably not going to win the Democratic nomination for president but his campaign has already proven to party leaders that its base has moved well to the left of Bill Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council and even Barack Obama's liberalism.
Sanders has little to lose and everything to win as he campaigns in New York state over the next 10 days. A win, or even a close second-place, would underscore just how much the issues of income inequality, wage stagnation and Wall Street oversight resonate with the party's voter, especially the younger ones.
"What you're seeing is a step in a long term trend that Bernie's campaign has helped fuel but certainly didn't start," said Michael Lux, co-founder of Progressive Strategies, a political campaign firm, in a phone interview from Washington. "People have come to perceive Wall Street as being at the heart of a lot of economic problems."
Though it's been eight years since the onset of the Great Recession, anger remains high that Wall Street and its executives were bailed out with taxpayer money while wages for most people have continued to stagnate even as the country's largest corporations have mostly recovered. Sanders, of course, has been relentless in attacking the investment strategies of U.S. corporations as well as their outsized role in campaign financing.
He's also had success laying blame for those trends on Hillary Clinton, making the most of her ties to Wall Street banks at a time when most voters are skeptical that the country's largest financial institutions are doing right by the general public.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll, showed that 67% of U.S. voters want a president who favors tougher Wall Street regulations compared to 24% who said they wanted less. Even most Republicans said they want government to get tougher with banks, one reason that Donald Trump's campaign found support from Tea Party activists who deplored the bank bailout.
In winning Tuesday's Wisconsin primary with 57% of the vote, Sanders' voters cited "income inequality" and "economy/jobs" as their most important issue. Those voting for Clinton, who finished with 43% in the state, pointed to "terrorism."
"His fiery rhetoric is giving these issues more prominence because fiery rhetoric is catnip for the media," said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets Inc, a Washington-based advocate for financial regulation, in a phone interview from Washington. "But these issues are coming from the bottom up, not the top down."
Yet the Vermont senator's campaign, says Michael Lind, co-founder of New America, a Washington policy advocate, may be more of a precursor to a progressive agenda than the vehicle itself. Sanders, unlike Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Lind argues, has failed to articulate a clear-cut and definitive set of proposals that can bring substance to what he calls a "political revolution."
Targeting the support or even the defeat of a particular piece of legislation, as Ross Perot did with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992, would be a step in a more serious direction.
"Protest campaigns can either let off steam or they can introduce a single reform," said Lind in a phone interview. "Sanders has no particularly actionable agenda that might be realistically enacted if he were elected president."
While Sanders' campaign might be called a movement, Clinton's campaign is winning at delegate accumulation, which is how nominations are ultimately won. As a former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state, Clinton has benefited from three decades in Democratic politics which has given her unparalleled name recognition and a formidable national political network.
Despite losing in Wisconsin, Clinton holds a lead of 1,279 to 1,027 among delegates, and a more substantial lead with the inclusion of Super Delegates, officeholders, local leaders and party officials. all told, Clinton's total jumps to 1,748 compared to Sanders' 1,058 in the march toward the 2,383 delegates needed at the convention in Philadelphia in July.
Sanders' campaign has had particular success with younger voters, forcing Clinton to demonstrate her progressive bona fides. For those who came of age politically through the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011, or the Black Lives Matter protests for criminal justice reform, Clinton is a remnant from a Democratic party that Ralph Nader slammed in 2000 as being little different from the Republicans.
Clinton's long relationship with Wall Street banks has become her albatross despite frequently reminders that Obama also received millions of dollars in campaign donations from financial institutions but still managed to pass the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.
"She's had to move in part because of a stronger than expected challenge from Bernie but also because the Democratic center of gravity has changed," Lux added. "It's very different than it used to be. The dynamics over the last decade is the reason for that."