Presidential Election

Bernie Sanders faithful look for victories in likely defeat

Don Ramie had flown an American flag outside his ranch-style home for two decades, until one Fourth of July morning about 10 years ago, when the weight of two foreign wars and controversies surrounding influence trading in Washington, D.C., became too much.

For the final years of George W. Bush’s second term and all of Barack Obama’s presidency, the flag stood by an easel in a corner of his garage.

“I felt like the country had been bought,” said Ramie, of Fremont.

But in blistering sun at a Bernie Sanders rally here last week, the 65-year-old artist was starting to feel the United States had turned, that he might put the flag out once again.

“He comes along, and the guy is crowd-funded … by people like myself,” Ramie said. “For the first time, I saw a ray of hope for how the country can be changed.”

While Sanders continues to scrap at Hillary Clinton in the run-up to California’s June 7 primary – insisting he still can win – many of his supporters are beginning to take stock of victories in defeat.

In a surprisingly strong campaign, the Vermont senator has nudged Clinton to the left, animated scores of young Democrats and given air to the party’s most progressive causes.

Even in the near-certain event that Sanders falls short, Ramie said, “He’s already won.”

Sanders trails Clinton by any meaningful measure in the Democratic Party’s nominating contest: In pledged delegates, superdelegates and in the popular vote. Even a Clinton loss in California is unlikely to prevent her nomination.

Yet as a message bearer, Sanders appears to have left a mark on the probable nominee.

Sanders opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement long before Clinton took the same position on a pact she previously described favorably. While Sanders opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, environmentalists in San Francisco protested Clinton before she, too, came out against it.

Clinton has criticized Sanders’ plan for free tuition at public colleges and universities as unworkable and overly generous to wealthy Americans. But his proposal preceded her own college affordability plan to reduce college debt.

Earlier this month, Clinton appeared to shift in Sanders’ direction on health care policy, as well. With Sanders calling for a single-payer health system, Clinton suggested she would support allowing people who are not yet 65 to buy into Medicare.

“In the short run I do think he has pushed Hillary to take positions that she might not have taken otherwise,” said Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s pretty clear that he has kind of helped frame the debate in this election.”

Sanders has focused attention on California since March, when he predicted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he would find receptive audiences on the West Coast, “probably the most progressive part of America.” Following a victory in Oregon on Tuesday, Sanders campaigned in Los Angeles County and Northern California ahead of an election he said will be the “most important primary of the entire nominating contest.”

But the whole of California’s electorate is more moderate than frenzied crowds at recent Sanders rallies would suggest. Only about one-third of likely California voters describe themselves as liberal, according to Public Policy Institute of California polls. The state has not adopted a single-payer healthcare system, despite repeated attempts, and business-friendly Democrats wield a heavy hand in the state Assembly. Gov. Jerry Brown has disappointed liberal activists on issues ranging from gun control to oil drilling to state spending on social services.

For California Democrats, said Bao Nguyen, the mayor of Garden Grove and a Sanders supporter, the result of Sanders’ candidacy is that “we now understand what true progressives are.”

“I think California wants to portray itself in a certain light, and it wants to call itself progressive, it wants to say it’s leading the country,” Nguyen said. “But we have fallen behind in certain areas because of the moderate Democrats, and we haven’t been leading so much in things like universal health care.”

Paul Song, a California physician who resigned as chairman of the progressive group Courage Campaign last month after referring to “corporate Democratic whores” at a Sanders rally in New York, said Sanders’ candidacy constituted “almost a once in a lifetime opportunity” to press the case for universal health care.

“It’s at least gotten people to think about it,” said Song, who apologized for his off-color remark and said it was not directed at Clinton. “Even though he may not end up with the nomination, I do believe that going to each state and having the conversation … who knows?”

In California, Sanders has gained on Clinton since last year, lagging just 6 percentage points behind in the latest Field Poll. Sanders is drubbing Clinton among likely voters under 40. That age group is significant because political research has long suggested people carry forward political attitudes they form in their early adult years.

“The bigger issue in California around the Sanders movement,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the PPIC, is the “young voters that Sanders has attracted to become part of the electorate, and how are they going to respond? Are they going to continue to be engaged in the election after November?”

Nationwide, 25 percent of Sanders supporters said they would not support Clinton in the general election if she becomes the nominee, according to a McClatchy-Marist poll in April.

Clinton’s name is booed at Sanders’ rallies, and even among Sanders supporters who will likely support Clinton in November, many say they will cast their vote grudgingly. For now, they hold out hope for an upheaval benefiting Sanders or take solace in an election four years or eight years off.

“At least the ball will be rolling, and in the future candidates will follow his path,” said Claudia Harvey, who sat with her 4-year-old son beneath a shade tree at the Sanders rally in San Jose.

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said Sanders’ candidacy establishes a “proof of concept” for liberal Democrats for the next presidential race, in 2020.

In the last presidential election, Republicans settled on Mitt Romney after a series of challengers – some from outside of the establishment – rose and fell. The contest served as a preview of Trump’s ascendance four years later.

For Democrats in 2020, said Kousser, “If you can get someone who talks in the same way that (Sanders) does, that talks about the same issues that he does, and brushes his hair, I think there’s a path.”

Clinton, who will return to California to campaign this week, has focused most of her attention on Trump. Her supporters, perhaps following her example, have largely remained tolerant of Sanders.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a longtime Clinton ally despite his more left-leaning politics, said that for Clinton supporters, “It’s not just where you are on the issues … It’s whether or not you have a track record of getting those issues done.”

Yet Villaraigosa, who chaired the Democratic National Convention in 2012, said, “Everybody’s got a right to run, and this race has been good to the extent that it’s allowed Democrats – and Republicans, for that matter – to air their differences with each other, to challenge notions about what we ought to prioritize in these times.”

Sanders’ candidacy, he said, has “allowed us to have that conversation.”

In San Jose last week, Ramie was planning to put his flag back up.

The Fourth of July is coming, he said, and thousands of people had gathered at a fairgrounds to support a candidate who ran on relatively small donations and a populist message.

“Finally, there’s this man I’m sitting here waiting to see, and realizing that Bernie Sanders has shown that money does not rule everything,” Ramie said. “I think this country has been redeemed.”

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

Where they stand

Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement

Clinton: Described the agreement in favorable terms while secretary of state, going so far as to call the pact “the gold standard” for trade agreements. But the deal had not yet been finalized. After it was, she announced her opposition in October.

Sanders: Opposed Trans-Pacific Partnership and, before that, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Minimum wage

Clinton: Supports raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour, while supporting state and local efforts to raise minimum wages higher.

Sanders: Supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

College tuition

Clinton: Proposes a “debt-free” college plan, aiming to make public colleges and universities more affordable.

Sanders: Proposes to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Health care

Clinton: Supports a public option for health insurance and tax credits to reduce the cost of insurance purchased under public health insurance exchanges.

Sanders: Supports a federally administered single-payer health care program for all Americans.