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Do Democrats Want What Bernie Wants, Or Just What Bernie Has?

Brooke Peterson poses for photos with a sign at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday in Carson, Calif.
Jae C. Hong
Brooke Peterson poses for photos with a sign at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday in Carson, Calif.

For some weeks now, as Bernie Sanders has extended his remarkable and improbable run as a presidential candidate, people have been asking: "What does Bernie want?"

That question is a distant echo of "What does Jesse want?" a relic of the 1988 runner-up candidacy of Jesse Jackson, another "outsider" challenger with a dedicated hardcore following. But more about Jackson in a moment.

This week, the question took a different form. After a rowdy convention in Nevada prompted death threats against that state party chair, the question suddenly became: "Are the Democrats coming apart?"

Uniting for the fall has always been an issue for both parties. But this year, it was supposed to be the Republicans, with their 17 candidates and their frustrated #NeverTrump rearguard action, who broke up over their differences.

Now, it's working out quite differently. So we hear again that old nostrum: "Democrats want to fall in love, Republicans want to fall in line." A remarkable number of Republicans have accepted, if not embraced, Donald Trump as their nominee. But a large contingent of Democrats continue to feel the Bern, or at least remain very much out of love with Hillary Clinton.

Which brings us to this past weekend, which proved that sometimes what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.

The "Nevada fracas" has created a media meme and a conversational focus for the conflict roiling the Democratic Party. That is because it encapsulates the grievances felt on both sides.

Sanders supporters see that some of their number were not seated in Las Vegas and see evidence that the system is rigged against them. Clinton supporters hear the epithets hurled at women on that stage, including the state party chair and Sen. Barbara Boxer, and perceive evidence of something else.

Others will adjudicate what happened in Las Vegas, where both candidates' camps seem to think they were entitled to a majority of delegates. (Although Clinton won the initial round of caucuses back in February, Sanders had the upper hand in an intermediate round at the county level on April 2.)

One camp wanted an open process; the other wanted respect for the rules. A voice vote was gaveled to a conclusion despite an uncertain outcome, which is bound to cause trouble. But in the end, the party chair herself has come to seem the principal victim — "more sinned against than sinning" — because of extreme phone and online harassment.

Nevada's convention seems to have been an egregious case, an outlier. In other states where actual delegates are chosen in several phases, regular order has been followed without a similar outburst.

But exceptions to the rule often make news. And in this case, cable TV and social media have endlessly repeated the raucous video shot at the convention and the toxic harassment that followed. As Nevada became a national story, Sanders was pressured to respond.

The candidate has condemned violence generically, but has not apologized for his backers. Instead, Sanders and his retinue have denied responsibility for what happened and doubled down on their long-simmering resentments against Democratic Party officials.

They say the entire process has been rigged against them, even parts that have been in place for decades. And the implicit message has been: Treat us fairly or expect there to be consequences. When this message is combined with Sanders' vow this week to "carry our fight to the convention," it darkens the portents for the national convention in Philadelphia.

So what does Bernie want?

Let's start with the obvious: He wants to be nominated and elected. That's understood. Every candidate has a perfect right to continue fighting until the last ballot is cast, as Sanders vows to do.

But even if he wins California, and several other states on June 7, Sanders would need vertiginous victory margins to win enough delegates to close the pledged delegate gap with Clinton. (The Democrats divide delegates proportionally according to the popular vote, which is just about as democratic a method as you can imagine.)

So Sanders' one path is to persuade superdelegates to prefer him over Clinton, even though they currently prefer Clinton by more than 10-1. (The only superdelegate to flip so far deserted Sanders for the front-runner.)

Sanders and his spokespersons say superdelegates should now ignore the overall vote and the pledged delegate totals and look at how much better Sanders does against Trump in hypothetical November matchups.

The only problem is that hypothetical tests six months before the election are notoriously unreliable. Just ask President Perot.

Moreover, many of the poll respondents who create this November differential right now are Sanders supporters who say they will shift to Trump in November. The likelihood of their actually doing so is problematic, given past experience with disgruntled backers of other candidates who fell short. (The most recent example would be the Clinton backers in 2008 who swore they would not vote for the man who beat her, Barack Obama, but wound up doing so in the fall.)

So the "path to the nomination" for Sanders is not just uphill, it is essentially vertical.

So what else might Sanders want?

No one seems to think Sanders wants to be vice president or have any other role in a Clinton administration. He would return to the Senate, where he would be in a wholly new weight class of political influence.

But he clearly wants to make a difference, to alter how the Democrats go forward in the fall campaign and beyond.

And that is what the Clinton camp must manage. It is entirely possible that the Democratic convention in Philadelphia this July will vote to change party rules, shrinking the number of superdelegates or requiring them to follow the voting results in their states.

It is also possible, if less likely, that the party would agree to allow more independents a role in its nominating process (although this would still depend on the will of the various states).

Sanders supporters will also strive to make the party platform more progressive, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding Medicare to cover people of all ages and perhaps calling for free tuition at public colleges. (The platform already calls for much of Sanders' program regarding the campaign finance system and other issues.)

This might fall far short of the "political revolution" Sanders says his campaign is about. But it could still matter. And it could still point the party toward a far more progressive future.

That is one way in which the 1988 precedent is relevant. Jesse Jackson arrived in Atlanta with about 30 percent of the delegates (not nearly as many as Sanders will have this summer). At the time, it was easily the best showing for an African-American presidential candidate. And although Jackson was not going to be nominated (Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had a first-ballot majority), his message of racial and economic inclusion was popular and powerful within the party's base.

The Dukakis forces recognized this and turned the proceedings over to Jackson on the second night of the convention. Thousands of Jackson supporters jammed the arena while delegates, alternates and journalists waited outside — unable to enter. Jackson gave an hourlong oration on the theme of common ground, a siege gun speaking for unity.

Jackson did his part in the fall, helping Dukakis carry nearly 90 percent of the black vote and 70 percent of the then-minuscule Hispanic vote. Unfortunately for Dukakis, minority voters cast only about one ballot in seven in 1988.

But by 2012, the share of the vote cast by people of color had nearly doubled. That stunning growth has turned a dozen states that were red in 1988 to blue in 2012 (California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, New Mexico, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware and Vermont).

The same demographic trends have made Florida, Ohio and Colorado toss-ups in presidential elections. All had been solidly Republican in 1988.

Sanders' hard base is not among minorities, of course, but among younger voters. His success has been built on winning three-fourths or even more of the voters under age 30. That is a group Clinton will need in the fall just as much as Dukakis needed Jackson's base in 1988.

Sanders may not want a Jackson-style prime-time convention session all his own. He might be willing to settle for platform and rules revisions that would validate his campaign. But if he wants a Bernie night in Philadelphia when he can bring his political revolution to life — even for a few hours — it might be a small price to pay for peace.

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Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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