Every reality show hits that late-season slump when it becomes obvious who the real contenders are. You shared a sweet moment with the bachelor when you were riding horses through that field, but ultimately you're not hometown-visit material. You're the teenage karaoke queen of Anytown, Texas, but that and your crowd-pleasing, self-bedazzled outfits aren't going to be enough for you to crack the top five on Idol. And so here we are in the 2016 election, with months to go before the conventions but with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton looking like inevitabilities.
Yes, Bernie Sanders swept Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington in Saturday's primaries, proof again that he can inspire a lot of enthusiasm among Democratic voters, especially young ones. And he reassured a crowd in Madison, Wisconsin, that he can win both the nomination and the general election. But if he does, it's going to be a comeback that would be unprecedented in contemporary US presidential politics. Here's how that could happen:
The Democratic race is complicated by the existence of "superdelegates," or delegates who aren't bound to a candidate through a primary or caucus. These party loyalists and elected officials currently favor Clinton, but the Sanders campaign believes that if he wins a majority of pledge delegates it will demonstrate that he's a more viable candidate than Clinton, and also put pressure on the superdelegates not to overturn the wishes of the majority of Democratic voters. Putting aside superdelegates, Sanders would have to win nearly 60 percent of the delegates in the remaining states, including big victories in places like California and New Jersey, according to NPR.
That would entail a major shift in the campaign. So far, states with a lot of voters of color have gone for Clinton, Western states have backed Sanders, and some contested states (like Iowa, Massachusetts, and Missouri) have been virtually tied. It would mean that close races would have to turn into landslides for Sanders, and that the polls would have to be proved dramatically wrong.
In New York, those polls are currently heavily in Clinton's favor, and same goes for California and Pennsylvania: All states where Clinton has more than a nine-point lead now, and all states Sanders would have to win. Sanders fans might argue that these numbers don't factor in his recent victories, and that by chipping away and Clinton's aura of invincibility (or at least inevitability) he'll change the narrative and convince people to switch.
But there are no new arguments that Clinton supporters haven't heard before. The next "Hillary Is a Bad Person and Not Even a Feminist" op-ed will not result in an outbreak of Bern; if voters haven't turned on Clinton because of her Wall Street ties, her support for the disastrous Libya intervention, or her link to the now-unpopular "tough on crime" policies of the 90s, what is it going to take for people to turn on her? What new dirt could possibly be unearthed?
That's why Sanders's last, best hope is the FBI.
All of the above is out the window if the FBI indicts her for mishandling classified information stored in her infamous private email server. It's unlikely, but if Clinton or her closest aides were charged with crimes, her electability—her best argument—would suddenly be in doubt. Voters and superdelegates would be spooked; party officials would be looking around for an alternative to Clinton, and their only option would be Sanders. Ironically, those "damn emails" that Sanders once said Americans were tired of hearing about would be the very thing making him the favorite by default.
In this dreamworld we're erecting here, the general election is a relative cakewalk for Sanders, because the only major-party alternative for voters in November is Trump. The GOP would run ads calling Sanders a socialist, a communist, a traitor to America. Some shady PACs would release ads taking dog-whistle shots at him because he's Jewish. Trump would paint him as an out-of-touch activist who never created a job in his life. It would be an ugly, ugly race. Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire perpetually on the cusp of running as a third-party candidate, might change his mind and jump in in an attempt to save America from itself.
But Bloomberg would have no national constituency, and the early polls that predicted a Sanders-over-Trump victory would prove correct. Voters might not agree with Sanders on everything, but many would vote for him just because he's not Trump—they'd vote for a ham sandwich over Trump, or a collection of knives, or any random teenager skateboarding behind a 7-Eleven. A Sanders presidency would be a strange outcome given that he's been in the political wilderness basically his entire career, but it wouldn't be as dangerous as a Trump administration. That's how Sanders winds up being sworn in on January 20. That's how he forces the Democratic Party leftward, and how the country's history is inexorably altered.
That's the kind of vision Sanders volunteers may have in their heads as they work the phones, lick envelopes, and knock on doors. But they should remember that victory isn't the only way Sanders could change history. If the predictable comes to pass and Sanders winds up back in Vermont, it won't be on him to remake the Democratic Party in his image—it'll be up to his former campaign workers. In the morning after he concedes the race, they could give up on politics and conclude it's a rigged game. Or they could look at the effect he had on the race, realize there's a demand out there for genuine populist leftist candidates, and get out their calendars. If 2016 isn't the year of the revolution, there's always 2018, and 2020, and 2022…