Big political donors, the kind who can hit the $2,700 maximum contribution to a presidential candidate's primary campaign without blinking an eye, tend to think of politicians as playing cards. But Sen. Bernie Sanders' wealthiest backers aren't exactly playing to win — they're gambling on the firebrand senator's ability to change the national conversation.
According to a Politico report based on conversations with several of Sanders' millionaire benefactors — the relatively few in the donor class who support him — many of his most affluent patrons hope he stays in the race until the Democratic Party's convention in July, even if remains far behind Clinton in the delegate count for the nomination:
"I think he's got to stay in it. I think in his position right now he's shaped the entire conversation. The entire agenda of the 2016 Democratic agenda," said Meredith Burak, a former executive at Merrill Lynch and Bank of America.
While disappointed that Sanders had failed to make inroads with black voters, the millionaire co-founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream told Politico they believed Sanders' steady growth in national popularity over time suggests that his main obstacle has been achieving name recognition — and that when he gets heard, his message tends to resonate with an increasingly anti-establishment electorate.
Pushing for Sanders to stay in the race even if his nomination odds grow impossible is a long-term gambit. The idea is that Clinton will have to adopt or at least lean toward Sanders' policy positions in order to ensure she can mobilize his most devoted supporters in the general election.
The questions that Sanders' campaign has raised about inequality and money in politics and the following he's built both online and on the ground will outlast his campaign. What shape that movement will take if, come July he's not the nominee, is unclear but a number of his backers think it will be more potent if he fights for as along as he can.
Sanders' ability to carry on with his campaign isn't just a matter of willpower. Even if he decides to stay in the race if it becomes clear that Clinton has established an insurmountable lead in the delegate count, he'll need plenty of cash to keep the engine running.
So far, that has not been a problem for him. In February, he raised a jaw-dropping $42 million from his supporters. But that was during a month when his electoral fate was still very much up in the air — it remains to be seen if donations will slow should he continue to trail Clinton by a similar or even wider margin than he currently does.