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Richard Davis: Bernie Sanders has won: What now?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign stop at the Pinkerton Academy Stockbridge Theatre, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, in Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign stop at the Pinkerton Academy Stockbridge Theatre, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016, in Derry, N.H. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo, AP

The delegate count shows that Hillary Clinton has locked up the Democratic presidential nomination. The majority of delegates who attend the Democratic national convention next month will be her supporters. Her name will be on the ballot in November opposite Donald Trump.

Yet, in many ways, Hillary Clinton has lost and Bernie Sanders has won. How has that happened? Looking back in time one year helps explain how and why that has happened, as well as what it means for the future.

One year ago, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed 75 percent of expected Democratic primary voters favored Hillary Clinton; only 15 percent supported Bernie Sanders. Indeed, few people gave Sanders any hope of winning the nomination, or even coming close to Clinton. Clinton was supposed to glide to victory while the Republicans fractured in an open convention.

In that year, Bernie Sanders tapped a latent distaste for the status quo, even among Democrats. He did that by pressing a theme of economic liberalism that resonated with millions of voters. Democrats and independents were “feeling the Bern” in talking about the radical economic changes Sanders was proposing. But even more may have simply been attracted to a candidate who bucked conventional wisdom and represented anything but politics as usual.

Sanders understands what Clinton is struggling to get — the Democratic Party has moved dramatically to the left. Democrats look quite different today from Democrats in 2008 when Clinton previously ran. Today, 42 percent of Democrats consider themselves liberals, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2008, 41 percent of Democrats considered themselves moderates.

That leftward tilt likely is not due to an ideological change in individual Democrats. Rather, it is more likely to have been caused by the newfound power of millennial voters. Today, millennials are the largest single voting bloc in the American electorate. And, again according to Pew, 49 percent of millennials consider themselves liberals.

Yet millennials have not identified solidly with the Democratic Party. Although more identify with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, half are politically independent. That is a larger proportion of independents than in any other age group.

Bernie Sanders brought many of those millennials into Democratic primaries and caucuses. They showed up to vote for him. In stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, he represents the potential future of the Democratic Party.

That is why Sanders did well in states where millennials could make a difference — Western red states such as Utah and Idaho where Democrats have fewer supporters, and progressive states such as Vermont, Minnesota and Oregon with political cultures that fit Bernie Sanders’ appeal. He did less well in states where the old-style Democratic Party politics prevailed, such as New York and Pennsylvania, or in states with large percentages of minority voters who relate to the Clintons, such as Mississippi, Louisiana and North Carolina.

With the backing of millennials, Sanders not only won nearly as many electoral contests as Clinton, he also won the momentum contest. He drew huge crowds, gave exciting speeches and raised tens of millions from small donors. By last month, he was within single digits of Clinton in support among Democrats nationally.

Now, the question Bernie Sanders faces is what to do with that victory. If he wholeheartedly embraces Hillary Clinton, will he seem like yet another politician who turns away from his principles for political gain? Will he then betray his supporters, many of whom chose not to support Clinton when they could have done so? And will they follow him in his endorsement of Clinton or will they choose to stay home, discouraged by the choices before them?

On the other hand, if he remains distant from Clinton or offers only a tepid endorsement, does he contribute to a Trump win and assist a candidate who is further from his views than Clinton? Does he rob the Democratic Party of these newly animated millennial voters and return them to independence?

How Sanders handles victory will affect not only the 2016 presidential elections, but possibly the nature of partisan politics for some time to come. The choice is his.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Politics." His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.