WASHINGTON — A year ago, Caroline Mak was working on an engineering problem set when her friend gleefully announced that a certain independent socialist was running for president.
“I was like, ‘Who’s Bernie Sanders?’ ” said Mak, now a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Back then, Mak didn’t even know what a primary was, but she was soon won over by the senator’s calls for revolution and started the group MIT Students for Bernie. Mak became one of many local supporters who considered themselves political outsiders before Sanders’ unexpected rise in the presidential race.
But as the primary calendar flips forward, the insurgent Democrat is trailing in the delegate count, making it nearly mathematically impossible for him to wrestle the nomination away from the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Now his unlikely hodgepodge of local supporters is shelving its self-started campaign teams, looking for new ways to carry the torch of the Vermonter’s anti-establishment politics.
“I’m one of those people who feels like he’s already won, and the reason why he’s already won is because the whole mission was to get people talking,” said Juliann Rubijono, founder of the Boston for Bernie group.
Rubijono, a 45-year-old artist who said she used to live an isolated life, found her sculpture-lined studio fill with nearby Sanders fans this year. The group retired its door-to-door canvassing treks after the Connecticut and Rhode Island primaries, she said, but plans to endure as a grass-roots organization amplifying political, economic, and environmental justice —
Rubijono also hopes to attend The People’s Summit in Chicago this summer, a three-day conference organized by Sanders supporters and other grass-roots organizations to discuss the next steps in what the event dubs a “political revolution.”
“Politics as usual has not worked, and it hasn’t worked for a long time,” said Winnie Wong, 40, an organizer of the summit who said she created the “Feel the Bern” hashtag for Twitter. “Bernie Sanders has managed to electrify millions of young and old Americans to participate with a specific electoral focus.”
Polls have shown the Democratic Party moving to the left, with an Edison Research exit survey indicating that more of the party’s voters are casting aside moderate and conservative labels to identify with the party’s “very liberal” wing. Edison Research vice president Joe Lenski warned, however, the outcome of the party’s swing is still up in the air.
“The future completely depends on who succeeds Bernie Sanders two or four years from now in being the Democratic candidate trying to appeal to these voters,” Lenski said. “Unless another candidate comes out and makes the case, these voters may be disappointed.”
One progressive movement goes beyond coalescing around a second Bernie Sanders — they want 535 of him on Capitol Hill.
Brand New Congress is led by former Sanders staffers who seek to elect a fresh slate of representatives during the next midterm elections in 2018, with a preference for political outsider candidates.
“A bunch of us in the movement were talking about what comes next, whether Bernie wins or loses,” said Zack Exley, a Brand New Congress leader and former senior adviser to Sanders. “We’re looking for people who have as much integrity and sincerity as Bernie, who had chances to sell out and haven’t.”
But to Democratic political consultant Jon Haber, the enthusiasm of Sanders’ supporters sounds all too familiar. Haber served as chief of staff during former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s run for president in 2004 — a campaign that championed a similar anti-establishment, grass-roots message.
When Dean’s campaign ended, Haber said, supporters went their separate ways. He said he believes Sanders’ starry-eyed legions will, too, inevitably disband in the coming months.
“When you work for insurgent politicians, it creates a tremendous energy and desire among people that worked on the campaign,” Haber said. “When the candidate is no longer there, the people working in the campaign change.”
Last month, Sanders’ underdog hike to the Democratic nomination took another hit when he retrenched his staff by a few hundred workers following some primary losses. Haber said many greenhorn political organizers of Sanders’ will undoubtedly go on to be key political players. But he said they will do so under different candidates.
“What happens is you energized people who haven’t been involved in politics before, and they go on new and different things and test themselves in different races,” Haber said.
Mak, the MIT student, said her brief stint in politics left her with a fresh resolve to change the world. Instead of her previous focus on computational cognitive science, she said, she now wants a career in political and civic technology, and is currently developing a smartphone application to inform and register voters.
“Bernie very much almost bets on how ordinary people can change lives,” she said. “This is something I will forever be indebted to.”
Other new faces to politics also are eager to remain in the arena. Boston University Students for Bernie, a student group BU senior Cristian Morales started, had its last meeting three weeks ago. Now Morales and his friends are planning to set up a Boston chapter of Represent Us, a movement advocating for a campaign finance reform overhaul. Morales, a computer engineering major, said he owes this interest to Sanders.
“If there hadn’t been Bernie, I don’t think I would have been politically active,” he said. “No other candidate could have done what he did and build a new era of Democrats.”
After emerging victorious in West Virginia Tuesday night, Sanders also reflected on his legacy.
“Our vision is the future of America and the future of the Democratic Party,” he proclaimed in his speech.
Alice Yin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.