Even if current patterns hold and Bernie Sanders comes up short in the race for the Democratic nomination, the Vermonter will still end this process in a strong position. He'll not only have wildly exceeded expectations, the independent senator will also have racked up an impressive number of delegates, votes, and state victories, all while leading a progressive "revolution" that can continue beyond 2016.
The next question is what Sanders and his team intend to do with that influence. In the short term, the Washington Post's Greg Sargent raises an interesting possibility.
...Sanders could demand concessions in the form of reforms to the Democratic nominating process. That's something voting reformers (and a lot of Sanders supporters) would be very grateful to see happen -- and it would make sense, given that one of the big stories of the Sanders challenge is that it has exposed a number of flaws with that process. [...] [I]f Sanders can keep Clinton short of a majority of delegates going into the convention, he could still try to use whatever leverage he has -- after all, he'll have the support of voters across the country that Clinton wants in her corner -- to prod the Democratic Party to make changes to the way it selects its nominees.
Agreed, that would make a lot of sense. Even the most loyal Democratic partisans would likely agree that the presidential nominating process has its flaws, and a reform-minded campaign like Sanders' has reason to advocate major changes going forward, even if those tweaks won't change the outcome this year.
It's not like the status quo is sacrosanct. On the contrary, the Democratic process has been changed many times over the decades, including progressive reforms such as proportional delegate distribution -- an idea championed by Jesse Jackson and his backers in the 1980s.
So, what kind of changes could Democrats make? Greg highlighted a bunch of them, and the possibilities are likely familiar to those who've watched -- and occasionally been frustrated by -- the process as it currently exists. Caucuses, for example, which nearly always make participation far more difficult, could be replaced with an all-primary system that makes voting easier. Maybe the role of super delegates could be diminished or eliminated.
Perhaps Democrats should have a debate about the role of independents voting in their nominating contests. Maybe the party could talk about spacing primaries out so that it's easier for candidates to focus on one race at a time.
There's nothing necessarily ideological about any of these possible changes, and it's quite possible that Hillary Clinton's campaign might actually like some of these tweaks. If Team Sanders pushed to make the process more democratic -- and even Democratic -- Team Clinton might be amenable to the reforms, and the result, as Greg put it, "could be one of the Sanders challenge's legacies."
There is, however, one important catch: many of the existing areas of concern surrounding the Democratic process have actually worked to Sanders' benefit. Caucuses, for example, are probably the most problematic part of the entire race, but they've been critical to Sanders' success -- just as they were to then-candidate Barack Obama's victories eight years ago.
Similarly, the role of superdelegates is clearly the most controversial aspect of the process, but Sanders and his campaign still hold out hope of persuading these party officials to elevate his candidacy, even if that means overriding the will of the voters.
In other words, the circumstances are a little awkward: the kind of reforms Team Sanders might recommend to improve the system overall would target some of the same policies that have helped Team Sanders.
Nevertheless, the broader point remains the same: Sanders and his aides may soon have an opportunity to put their clout and successes to good use, and changing the way future candidates are nominated could be time well spent.