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The momentum story: How the Bernie Sanders crowd can still win

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The media and the political class have called it — Bernie Sanders has lost the Democratic Presidential nomination. They are flat wrong, and not for the first time.

Here’s the real story: the Sanders campaign is changing the laws of political physics — just like Trump did, only far more profoundly. The Bernie crowd is building the most extraordinary grassroots momentum I have ever seen. The movement is gathering strength by the day, and its chances to win are growing fast.

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I write from first-hand experience: I am reporting from inside the Bernie campaign. Having observed dozens of campaigns around the world before, I have never seen anything quite like this. The media are telling their own stale and circular story of stalled momentum, defeat and superdelegate-powered inevitability. Meanwhile the Bernie movement is growing faster than Facebook did — and in much the same way.

Everyone knows the campaign is supported by a flood of small donations: this week it will hit the five-million mark. Bernie is raising more money than Hillary Clinton and still accelerating, while her campaign has already maxed-out much of its big donor base. Sanders has already raised more money — from many more small donors — than even Obama had at this point. The numbers are unprecedented.

But another momentum story has yet to be told. As Bernie says, the only thing more powerful than money is people. And people are flooding into this campaign in their multitudes.

The Bernie campaign’s decentralised model is empowering supporters to self-organise like never before. In the run-up to 2008, Obama built a new machine based on data and community organising techniques to win an election. By contrast, the Bernie crowd are building a new kind of movement — one which could just lead to nothing less than the re-founding of American democracy.

The volunteer data and activity I’m seeing tells an extraordinary story: the Bernie Sanders campaign could be entering a Silicon Valley-like phase of exponential growth.

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Volunteers are coordinating in realtime through web tools, social media and Slack chatrooms, contributing their unique skills to the campaign as well as making calls and converting neighbours and friends. They are making millions of calls, sending hundreds of thousands of text messages and knocking on tens of thousands of doors every day. They are organising barnstorming meetings to get others involved, holding benefit concerts and having a whole lot of fun. They are designing their own empowerment, revising their own scripts.

And they’re just getting started. Most of this infrastructure didn’t even exist a month ago. The campaign is setting what seem like wildly ambitious goals for engagement, then blowing right past them. This is a category-killing political startup with a massive, passionate and fast-growing base, and they’re talking unabashedly about revolution.

I saw in my native Britain last year how a similarly passionate movement crashed the Labour Party and elected left-winger Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership. He was a 100-1 outside shot without much charisma, and the media wrote him off too. But the Corbyn crowd won by a landslide — and they didn’t have one-tenth of the strength or sophistication of the Bernie crowd.

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I’m talking about the Bernie crowd because that’s what this campaign is – crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, teeming with leadership and initiative. Bernie is their vehicle, bringing them together and opening the doors. While Trump is a media warlord running his own dark ISIS-like insurgency, Bernie is tribune, inspirer, educator, organiser.

“We, not I,” Bernie says. The media and the political class can’t compute. They cling to their talking heads and their fuzzy math. The Clinton campaign feeds them memos about the “mathematical impossibility” of Sanders winning the nomination after Super Tuesday, and they just lap it up.

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But this is politics, not some Wall Street statistical model (and we all know how those end up…). What’s more, this is starting to look like a Black Swan year in politics, just as 2008 was a Black Swan year in the financial markets. The impossible becomes possible, likely, inevitable… all in a blink of an eye. Don’t believe me? Trump.

What is the Bernie crowd’s actual path to the Democratic nomination? Strategist Tad Devine was crystal clear on a briefing call earlier this week. They organise. They keep growing at exponential speed. They flood into low-turnout primaries and win increasingly-significant victories in key states.

They win in the industrial Midwest – perhaps even in Michigan next Tuesday. I was there last night with Bernie in a roaring stadium in Lansing. 10,000 people showed up, and almost 3000 of them signed up to knock on doors. Bernie just released a searing ad on jobs and trade agreements which speaks directly to the pains and dispossessions of the 33% of manufacturing workers in Michigan who have lost their jobs in the last fifteen years.

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Commentators ask, “What makes Bernie Sanders think he can win Michigan?” The answers aren’t hard to find. While it’s true that Hillary Clinton has led the polls thus far, the same was true in every state that has voted for Sanders — until it wasn’t.

They win again and again, bigger and bigger, as the Bernie crowd keeps growing. And eventually the media goldfish will realise that while they’re swimming around and around in their little media cycle, there’s a whole ocean of humanity out there, joyfully connecting and awakening.

The big states late in the calendar start falling like dominos: New York, Pennsylvania, California… And I haven’t even mentioned Hillary Clinton’s unfavorability ratings, or the unique majority of the general public who view Bernie positively. And the super-delegates will follow the popular vote. This is 2016, not Tammany Hall.

This is a popular wave, a democratic crowd, the polar opposite of a mob. The Bernie supporters I’ve met are overwhelmingly thoughtful, passionate, serious people who have finally found a politics they can believe in. Finally, they are discovering their strength in numbers. And they are becoming a tidal wave.

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I’ve asked dozens of Bernie supporters what they mean by political revolution, and the answer is modest and extraordinarily consistent: it’s about ending corruption, taking back American democracy for the many, and enabling everyone to live a normal, happy, fulfilling life. Their critique is acute and resonates far beyond the liberal left into conservative and rural strongholds. Their prescriptions are gathering force.

The Bernie crowd are organising. They are campaigning. They are learning, they are growing, they are committing to take back their politics and their country. Most importantly, they are beginning to run for office. Because they know that whether Bernie wins or loses, it doesn’t stop there. From local races to Congress, the Bernie crowd are coming.

Is Bernie perfect? Not by a long way. He needs to find a better way to connect with African-American voters, who thus far are going overwhelmingly for Clinton. But his politics of passion, truth-telling and pragmatic coalition-building are built for the twenty-first century.

To rise to this moment, Bernie Sanders now needs to become a context-transcending leader (as the Brazilian philosopher and government minister Roberto Unger would say). He cannot allow himself to be trapped and beaten by the system. If he can start to tell a new story about the future, he could surprise and connect with he broadest swathe of Americans across political lines.

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But it’s not all about one old Jewish guy from New York.

Can Bernie win? Hell, yes. Is it inevitable? Not by a long shot. But citizens getting involved is what will decide the outcome, not media talking heads, Washington suits or billionaires’ cash.

And what if, having overcome extraordinary odds to become a real contender, Bernie falls just short of the nomination? What if his campaign doesn’t grow fast enough to beat the machine the Clintons built for decades?

In the most important sense, he has already won. The Bernie crowd is here to stay.

Spread the word: now it gets interesting.

Paul Hilder is a British writer and organiser. He has worked with Change.org, Avaaz.org, 38 Degrees, the Labour Party and other movements

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