Opinion writer

The presidential candidates are releasing their third-quarter fundraising figures, and the biggest surprise may come from what Bernie Sanders managed to do, raising $26 million in the last three months. Here’s how our Chris Cillizza describes it:

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton technically beat Bernie Sanders by $2 million in the chase for campaign cash over the past three months. But that isn’t the story — not even close.

Clinton held 58 fundraising events to raise her total; Sanders held seven. As of the end of September, Sanders had brought in 1.3 million total donations from 650,000 individuals since he began running. Clinton’s campaign did not release how many total donors she has. And Sanders ended September with $25 million in the bank; Clinton did not release how much money her campaign had on hand.

Read between the lines, and you get this: Sanders is drawing huge amounts of small-dollar donations via the Web. That means two important things: (1) Sanders has been able to concentrate on meeting and greeting potential voters rather than spending his time courting donors, and (2) He has been able to conserve money because he isn’t spending cash on lavish events for donors.

If we haven’t already — and to a great degree we haven’t — it’s past time to treat Bernie Sanders like a regular candidate.

By “regular,” I mean that we need to assume that Sanders is actually trying to become president. That may sound obvious, but it would be a change in how he’s been covered. While there are plenty of long shots in both parties’ primary races and candidates about whom we say that their best scenario may be getting a radio show out of the effort, Sanders may be the only one about whom so many reporters have assumed that even he isn’t actually trying to win. A 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont? Come on, he’s obviously just trying to make a point.

I have no idea if Sanders anticipated the success that he’s now having, but it’s undeniable and has to be reckoned with. It’s not just fundraising: according to the Huffpost Pollster average, he now trails Hillary Clinton by only 15 points, 42-27. Three months ago that margin was more like 40 points, and that 27-point average means he has more support among Democrats than any single GOP candidate has among Republicans.

Sure, you might say, but everyone knows the guy isn’t going to be the Democratic nominee. Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t. But so what? That should be a minor consideration at most. “Who’s the nominee going to be?” is not only a question the media is terrible at predicting the answer to, and it’s far from the most important question we might ask about the campaign. What partisans are thinking and feeling right now is also interesting and relevant — maybe more so.

Sanders has considerable support right now among Democrats, which in and of itself makes his campaign a story. So what does covering him like any other candidate mean? Here are a few areas the coverage can and should focus on:

His policies: Sanders has plenty of policy ideas, and they provide an interesting contrast with those of his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, since he places himself to the left of her on many issues. Furthermore, they’re providing much of the fuel for his campaign — Democratic voters aren’t flocking to him because of his rugged good looks and mellifluous speaking voice. So we should be doing more stories looking deeply into the specific things he wants to do if he becomes president.

Those stories haven’t been completely absent, but they haven’t been frequent enough. For instance, today the Post’s David Fahrenthold has a story examining Sanders’ ideas for expanding government benefits in areas like education and health care. The story is extremely skeptical of those ideas, but it takes them seriously and tries to grapple with what their effects might be (at least the negative effects; Fahrenthold doesn’t spend much time examining the potential benefits of what Sanders proposes). You might not like the story — I’m sure Sanders supporters would characterize it as contemptuous — but it discusses Sanders’ policy proposals without bothering with whether he can win the nomination. There should be more of that (and that applies to other candidates as well).

His supporters: Who are the people rallying to Sanders? How are key Democratic constituencies like young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, and union members represented among them? Are they really disaffected with Hillary Clinton, or will they be happy to vote for her if she’s the nominee? How do they think about what has happened in the last eight years, and what do they hope for from the next eight?

His campaign: We often hear about the big crowds that Sanders draws, but not much more about his actual campaign. How does he produce those crowds? What sort of organization has he created? Is it just in Iowa and New Hampshire, or has he built anything substantial in states that come afterward? Who are the people running it? If it’s the most “grassroots” campaign of the Democratic contenders, what exactly does that mean in practice?

Treating Sanders like a regular candidate would mean not just increasing the volume of coverage he receives, which is absolutely warranted, but also covering all these areas. I’ll admit that I’m as guilty as anyone — I haven’t been giving Sanders as much attention as I should have. But we’ve passed the point where the Sanders campaign is just a novelty. It doesn’t matter whether he’s going to be the nominee or not. He should be getting more (and more comprehensive) coverage than he has gotten up to this point. He may not like all of it, but he’s earned it.