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Why Bernie Sanders matters, even if he can't win

Sanders has a distinct advantage: He showed up. And in a year when few are willing to challenge Clinton, that could be enough to make him an important force.

Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t want to run for president. Or least he says he didn’t. But after months of waiting for a better candidate to step up and challenge Hillary Clinton from the left, Sanders believes the responsibility fell to him. 

The Vermont senator’s presidential run, made official at a press conference in Washington, D.C. Thursday, will test the maxim that 90% of success is just showing up.

A white, 73-year-old self-described socialist is not exactly an ideal candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 – in no small part because he’s still not even a Democrat.

But if the saying is true, Sanders has a distinct advantage – he showed up. And in a year when few are willing to challenge Clinton, that could be enough to make Sanders an important force in determining the future of the Democratic Party, even if he has almost no chance of winning. 

While Sanders says he’s in this race to win it, he would be the first to admit he’s not exactly a model candidate. “You are looking at a guy who, indisputably, has the most unusual political history of anybody in the United States Congress,” he told reporters while announcing his run Thursday. 

The son of Brooklyn paint salesman who moved to Vermont after graduating from the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders won his first election as mayor of Burlington by just 10 votes. 

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Sanders won that first race, and every one since, by co-opting existing networks of radical activists, faith groups, college students, low-wage workers, and others. “Coalition politics,” he calls it. And that’s how he hopes to make an unlikely stand for the highest office in the land in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s spent plenty of time in recent months. 

It’s a long shot, to say the least.

Former Secretary of State Clinton holds an unprecedented lead in every poll, will dramatically out-fundraise all opponents, already has dozens of veteran operatives on staff, and – most importantly, according to political scientists – has secured the endorsement of most of the party’s leaders. 

But as NBC’s Perry Bacon notes, while Sanders is unlikely to win, his ideas might. His presence in the race will mean more discussion of progressive priorities like financial reform, Social Security expansion, and debt-free college.

“He’ll give an interesting perspective, so he’ll liven things up.”'

It’s part of the reason he plans to run as a Democrat instead of an Independent – to get on a debate stage with Clinton. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a longtime Clinton ally, said Thursday that Sanders “has clearly demonstrated his commitment to the values we all share as members of the Democratic Party.”

Meanwhile, Sanders will likely also have to compete with the younger and more polished Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor, who is also seriously eyeing a run to Clinton’s left. 

And there’s also former Sen. Jim Webb. At the same time Sanders announce his candidacy at the Capitol, the former Marine held his own event two miles down Constitution Avenue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. “He’ll give an interesting perspective, so he’ll liven things up,” Webb told a small group of reporters of Sanders.

RELATED: Bernie Sanders: 'I am running for president of the United States'

But instead trying to run against Clinton or anyone else, Sanders will likely keep to his own lane. He has proudly never run a negative political ad and chafes at journalists’ attempts to get him to comment on the former secretary of state.  

When the sometimes-grouchy Sanders does knock Clinton, it often seems more out of exasperation at reporters’ persistent questioning than anything Clinton did. “I’m known as a blunt guy, not a warm and fuzzy guy, but really a nice guy after all,” he said at Howard University this week. 

On the stump, Sanders tends to give the same gloomy speech about how the billionaire class is hell-bent on destroying America and there’s little we can do to stop it. “My wife often tells me that after I speak, we have to pass out the anti-suicide kits. So I’m trying to be more hopeful,” he said at the Brookings Institution in February. 

But while Sanders may not have concrete path to victory, he is tapping into a very real vein of populism and disillusionment in the country. “As a talk radio host reaching the progressive base every day, I have never seen the level of all-out excitement that I’ve heard from viewers and listeners in the last couple days about Bernie’s candidacy,” said Bill Press, a liberal talk radio host who is friendly with Sanders. “These are people who are now disillusioned with Obama because he kind of ignored them, and are less than enthusiastic about Hillary, who they consider a Wall Street Democrat,” Press continued.

The enthusiasm for his apocalyptic message is evident at the senator’s events in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere, where people pack into church basements and union halls to see him. Sander is in third place in New Hampshire and trails only Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vice President Joe Biden nationally; neither of whom are likely to run. O’Malley, Webb, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee remain in the low single digits. 

WATCH: Push to get Biden, Warren in 2016 race

Press, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party, thinks Sanders’ image, dandruff and all, could actually be an advantage. “In an age of poll-tested, cautious politicians, Bernie comes across as a authentic. The rumpled, hair going 10 different ways at a time,” Press said,” I think that appeals to people” 

For her part, Clinton said she welcomes Sanders to the race. “I agree with Bernie. Focus must be on helping America's middle class. GOP would hold them back. I welcome him to the race,” she said in a tweet signed with an “H,” denoting she wrote it.

Looming over Sanders’ candidacy as much as Clinton is Warren. Many progressives would prefer for the Massachusetts Democrat to enter the race, and she would likely have a much better shot at actually winning. But she’s repeatedly ruled out a run. 

Two liberal groups trying to draft Warren into the 2016 presidential race said they were excited for Sanders’ bid -- but are still holding out for Warren. “Democracy for America members are excited to have progressive champion Senator Bernie Sanders join the 2016 presidential race,” the group’s executive director, Charles Chamberlain said in a statement. “We continue to encourage Senator Elizabeth Warren to join the race.”

Sanders’ team is confident they can pick up the bloc of voters currently saying they favor Warren, who currently polls in second place. “If they’re going to hold a lot of people in place for a while in free parking, and then Bernie can go collect the rent later, that’s fine with me,” Sanders’ top adviser, Tad Devine, told msnbc two months ago. 

RELATED: 'Ready for Warren' group is not giving up

And shortly after Sanders’ announcement Thursday, a group of about 50 activists calling themselves People for Bernie made it clear that at least a chuck of the activist-left was ready for Sanders. The effort was organized by Charles Lenchner, who co-founded the draft Warren super PAC Ready for Warren, and list of signers is a who’s who of far left-wing activists. It includes many who were involved in the Occupy movement, activists with Democratic Socialists of America, and organizers involved in the insurgent campaigns of Zephyr Teachout in New York state and Chiu Garcia in Chicago.

Ultimately for Sanders, however, this latest phase of his unlikely political career is about much more than 2016. Sanders has been giving more or less that same gloomy stump speech since he was mayor of Burlington, just swapping out the name of the evil robber baron du jour. “He's not afraid of being boring and making the same points for 20 years,” Sanders’ brother, himself a politician in the U.K., told the Boston Globe a few years ago.

Sanders and fellow travelers on the left have been trying to slowly but surely change the conversation. They’ve tried through the Reagan Revolution, Bill Clinton’s moderate liberalism, George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, and through Barack Obama’s economic crisis recovery. But now – finally -- the conversation has come on their terms. Politicians of all political stripes are talking about economic inequality and both parties have been infused with their own brand of populism. 

Sanders may not be able to take that message to the White House himself, but if he has his way, whoever wins in 2016 will.