WASHINGTON — Even before Bernie Sanders’ resounding loss to Hillary Clinton in South Carolina Saturday night, some of his supporters were shifting strategy — acknowledging states where victories are unlikely, and instead focusing on delegate counts as a way to empower their candidate’s liberal philosophy within the Democratic coalition.
Sanders on Sunday readily acknowledged his drubbing in South Carolina: “We got decimated,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” of his nearly 50-point loss. “Among older African-Americans it was pathetic from our perspective.”
With more such states ahead, particularly in the South, Sanders’ supporters maintain that victory — while nice — is not the only point of the insurgent Vermont’s senator’s campaign. That philosophy was at the heart of the pitch that Sanders volunteers in Virginia were making last week as they talked to commuters.
“If he does well, it will still matter,” said Jim McBride, a 41-year-old veteran from the Barack Obama campaign, last week. He explained that he wants a strong showing for Sanders’ anticorporate message, which he says is purer than Obama’s was eight years ago.
In Oklahoma, some of the strongest Sanders advocates see victory in their state as a vehicle to send a message to the local establishment, even if he doesn’t clinch the nomination.
“Our party is broken,” said Connie Johnson, a former Democratic nominee for Senate from Oklahoma. “Bernie Sanders represents an opportunity to go after the old establishment and a source of inspiration for people to come back to the party.”
She wants to see changes in her red state, where there’s not a single Democrat elected statewide and the GOP has super majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
“We’ve got Democrats who don’t want to take a stand,” she said. A Sanders victory in her state would mean “the true base of the Democratic party is showing its face again,” said Johnson.
Sanders’ insurgent campaign caught fire after massively beating expectations in the first two nomination contests, where he nearly bested Clinton in Iowa and trounced her in New Hampshire.
But Clinton’s five-point victory in Nevada showed that she kept firm support from black voters, who make up a large chunk of the Democratic electorate.
“If you cannot connect with the nonwhite community you cannot be the nominee,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “Sooner or later it will be clear that he is a protest candidate.”
Candidates around the country report a Sanders effect on their races — suggesting that his attempt to capture the White House has had some impact, even if he’s unable to advance.
In Pennsylvania — its primary will take place April 26 — US Senate candidate John Fetterman said that the conversation of his Democratic primary race has tilted toward progressive issues. Candidates, he said, have embraced the $15-an-hour minimum wage that Sanders backs and they talk about racial injustice and economic inequality.
One of the first questions during one of his Senate debates, at Carnegie Mellon University in January, was whether the candidates would support taking the Affordable Care Act “a step further” and support a single-payer health care system, which is a key part of Sanders’ platform.
“It has really shaped the conversation drastically,” Fetterman said. “It has brought these issues to the forefront.”
Lucy Flores, a candidate for Congress in Nevada who is backing Sanders, said the Sanders enthusiasm outlasted his caucus campaign in the state: Her campaign picked up volunteers and contributors even after Sanders lost.
“Bernie Sanders supporters are engaged in so many ways and they absolutely adjusted to supporting other candidates those same ways,” she said.
She believes the strong showing for Sanders in her state, even though didn’t win, will force Clinton to honor some of the liberal positions that she’s taken, which include skepticism about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and an eagerness to talk about regulating large financial institutions.
“She is going to have to count on former Bernie supporters,” Flores said. “If she tried to go back to the middle where she started that is going to be detrimental to her turnout.”
Moderate Democrats see a path back to the center.
“She’s been careful not to go too far from shore,” said Matt Bennett, the senior vice president of public affairs at Third Way, a center-left think tank based in Washington. “We were worried that could happen.”
He pointed to her position on Social Security, in which she has avoided saying it should be expanded for all despite being pushed on that front.
She has also maintained her view that the national minimum wage should be set at $12 an hour and her opposition to reinstating the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act separating commercial and investment banking.
Still, Sanders has shown he has the ability to raise cash and stay in the race, even if winning the nomination becomes a mathematical impossibility because he can’t attract minority voters.
He predicted on Sunday that black voters outside the Deep South will support him in greater numbers, and he added that he wants to stay in the contest until California, which holds its primary on June 7.
It seems possible for him to do that.
“Sanders’ base seems to be strong, he seems to be bringing new people into the process,” said Rodell Mollineau, a Democratic strategist. “I’m not sure that will change.”
But if Sanders loses big on Tuesday, as polls suggest he might, the calls for him to get out of the contest will start.
“This is where it becomes tricky for the party,” said Mollineau. “You just have to hope that argument doesn’t become ugly.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.