op-Ed by Kyle Gardner

The headline read: “Sanders’ West Virginia win shows strength but not delegates.” While another victory for Bernie Sanders does little to help his delegate count, it continues to underscore the enduring strength of his contrasting message to Hillary Clinton. Sanders described his win as “an opportunity to define a progressive vision for America.”

More telling, according to The Guardian, in a West Virginia exit poll, 43% of Sanders supporters said they’d sooner vote for Trump than Clinton in November. If that weren’t enough, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released in mid-May indicated that Trump had pulled nearly even with Clinton, in a sign that the November 8th presidential election might be more hotly contested than initially believed. Of course, much can change over the next few months, but the survey should be a red flag. Clinton’s negative numbers are significant and undeniable, and as the ultimate insider contending with Trump’s outsider status, she is obviously vulnerable.

Despite the reality, some refuse to accept or fail to understand that Sanders’ campaign is far more than a simple math exercise, more than a mechanical harvesting of delegates, far beyond a sports analogy. Sanders’ campaign is a different breed of progressive insurgency, one that raises fundamental questions about the validity of our political and economic system and demands changes in the status quo. There is a sizeable group of Americans, especially young people, experiencing their political awakening right now. Sanders has forcefully placed “the system question” into the debate and shined a rather harsh light on the legitimacy of the current system. A movement is underway that could truly change the system, not just in 2016, but perhaps for the next generation or two.

Can Sanders win the nomination in Philadelphia in July? It’s a big “if,” considering he would have to convince a chunk of delegates, many of whom pledged their allegiance to the Clinton machine months ago. Still, the poll results mentioned above should raise concerns. In no way is a Clinton victory in November assured, just because Trump appears so revolting. In fact, voters would receive a huge disservice if the Clinton campaign devolved into the classic “He’s the worst ever” type of debate.

Beyond the surface indicators, Sanders has effectively raised the prospect of challenging the American creed that capitalism as we know it is the best, and only possible, option. Sanders’ success indicates that many people are clearly open to some new, systemic changes. Clinton, despite some generally progressive policy stances during her career, is both an architect and apologist for the creed and thus is not likely to be the type of president who would truly affect systemic change.

Does anyone really believe that Clinton, on her own, would push such progressive perspectives, absent Sanders? If Sanders were out of the way, Clinton could conveniently drop the progressive messaging, and retreat into hollow platitudes and vapid hyperbole about the threat of a Trump presidency. Not that such a future wouldn’t indeed be threatening, but Clinton’s likely shift in campaign messaging, without competition, would be devoid of substantive discussions about doing anything specific to deal with some of our most vexing issues. Clinton has been forced to move – at least rhetorically – to the left on a variety of issues. Assuming a nomination, will she remain leaning, or will she swerve back to the right – a more normal perspective for her – in order to prove her credentials with so-called “serious people?”

Thus, Sanders is likely to continue campaigning at least through the end of the primary season, even if it means pandering to the bland and blinkered media obsession with the horse race analysis. Moreover, there are a handful of progressive candidates running for the House and Senate who are likely to benefit from a continuing Sanders campaign, particularly if voter turnout is high.

Sanders has facilitated the most positively potent anti-establishment movement in over a generation. How it emerges and manifests itself is impossible to say at this moment, but something is happening. What has the independent-minded senator from Vermont inspired — a shift, an upwelling, an emergence, a punctuation, a cozy campfire, a conflagration?