U.S. Markets closed

How Bernie Sanders changed the 2016 election

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Bernie Sanders lost. No matter how hard he vows to fight on, his rival Hillary Clinton has now racked up the delegates needed to be the Democratic nominee for president. But Sanders, originally derided as a fringe candidate, had a major impact on the race that will last through November and perhaps beyond.

Sanders proved that a campaign built on genuine outrage about the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in America can draw millions of acolytes without a dollar’s worth of corporate money. He won 23 Democratic primaries. Perhaps most importantly, he helped identify issues fed-up voters identify with most, forcing Clinton to change her own stance on some of those issues. Here are four areas where Sanders had the largest impact:

Trade. Sanders wants to reverse free-trade agreements such as NAFTA, arguing that they push down American wages and destroy US jobs. Not long ago, Clinton was a strong proponent of free trade and a backer of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that’s now awaiting a vote in the Senate. She now says she’s opposed to the TPP, and the support Sanders received for his own opposition to free-trade deals is one likely reason why. This could have a real effect on the U.S. economy if the next president is a general opponent of free-trade deals, in contrast with the policies of every other president since at least the 1960s.

Income inequality. Sanders delivered a dour message about all the ways ordinary people get a raw deal these days – and voters lapped it up. Especially young voters. Donald Trump has a similar message, but that mostly seems to resonate with older men who feel economically disenfranchised. Sanders demonstrated that many young people feel similar anxiety, and they are now Clinton’s to grab. The obvious question is whether Clinton has the charisma to get their attention the way Sanders did in the primaries.

The big banks. Sanders’ plan to “break up the banks” was somewhat incoherent, since he never explained how, exactly, he would turn big banks into smaller ones. And some analysts think the new rules for financial institutions are so severe that too-big-to-fail banks aren’t even a problem anymore. By railing on the banks, however, Sanders showed that many Americans still seek a villain to blame for declining career prospects and dwindling quality of life. The message for Clinton: Your pals on Wall Street remain persona non grata in much of America.

The issues that didn’t resonate. Sanders tried out a lot of different themes on the campaign trail, and some of them didn’t really catch on, such as his “Medicare for all” plan, free college for everybody, and sharp tax hikes to pay for the additional benefits he called for. This shows that Americans remain suspicious of government and in general oppose tax hikes, giving Clinton some room to move back to the center on economic issues. To win, however, she needs to bring at least some of those fired-up Sanders enthusiasts with her.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.