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Opinion Sanders is leading something rare and unpredictable in U.S. politics

Supporters in Manchester, N.H., cheer as results start to show on the screen ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s New Hampshire primary victory on Feb. 11. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Deal with it: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is not even a Democrat, is leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. And it looks possible that none of his rivals will be able to catch him. If you want to get rid of President Trump, prepare to get behind Sanders and do everything you can to make him president.

Only three states have spoken. Plenty of opportunities for twists and turns remain, starting with the next debate on Tuesday and the South Carolina primary on Saturday. But Sanders is now the clear front-runner, with a plausible straight-line path to the nomination.

He earned it. Sanders has built a nationwide grass-roots organization, raised a ton of money through small-dollar donations, inspired real passion on the campaign trail and motivated his supporters to come out and vote. That is how you win.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 22 and predicted his campaign will "win across the country." His rivals, however, stayed hopeful. (Video: The Washington Post)

The candidates who trained most of their fire on former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg in the last debate were aiming at the wrong guy. Now, after the way Sanders dominated in the Nevada caucuses, it might be too late.

Commentators have warned ominously that the party will be committing “political suicide” if it nominates Sanders. I admit to having flirted with that theory myself. But democracy, done right, can be messy. The whole point of having primaries and caucuses is to allow voters to select the nominee they want, rather than let party insiders make the choice.

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Those insiders must feel the way their Republican counterparts did in 2016, as then-candidate Trump seized the GOP in a hostile takeover. He won primary after primary against competitors who split the never-Trump vote. By the time Trump had just two opponents left — Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio — it was too late. Many Republicans were convinced that Trump could not possibly win the general election and would likely lead the whole party to a crushing defeat. We know how that worked out.

History doesn’t repeat itself verbatim, though. The dynamic looks similar: Sanders reliably turns out his enthusiastic base, while the others split the somewhat larger please-not-Bernie vote. But it is not at all clear that rank-and-file Democrats see the race as neatly divided into “progressive” and “moderate” lanes, the way so many analysts describe it. A recent Morning Consult poll, for example, found that when supporters of former vice president Joe Biden were asked their second choice, more of them named Sanders than any of the moderates who share Biden’s supposed lane. The same was true of supporters of lane-straddling Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

As the field thins out, then, some of the dropouts’ support will go to Sanders, rather than to a single alternative representative of a “Stop Sanders” movement.

One unpredictable factor is the role that might be played by Bloomberg — or rather by Bloomberg’s vast fortune. He has displayed nothing but contempt for Sanders (the feeling is obviously mutual) and he has the money to stay in the race all the way to the convention. But what then?

If Sanders does as well in the Super Tuesday primaries next week as polls suggest, he will likely arrive at the convention in Milwaukee with more pledged delegates than anybody else. Even if it were just a small plurality, with Bloomberg in second place, would a party that claims to champion the working class really deny Sanders in favor of one of the richest men on the planet? I find that hard to imagine.

If the election ends up being Sanders vs. Trump, the outcome could be a blowout — in either direction.

Sanders would have to do without some campaign funds from Wall Street donors and could forget about the votes of many never-Trump Republicans, who would not vote for a democratic socialist no matter how fervently they want to deny Trump a second term. It’s possible that a red-menace scare campaign by the GOP — and you know that’s coming — could allow Republicans to keep the White House and the Senate, and maybe even challenge the Democrats’ majority in the House.

On the other hand, Sanders leads something that’s rare and unpredictable in American politics: a genuine movement. Look at the huge crowds at his rallies, reminiscent only of Trump’s crowds. Look at his unexpected and overwhelming strength among Latino voters in Nevada.

Are there Obama-Trump-Sanders voters in the Midwestern states that unexpectedly gave Trump his electoral victory four years ago? Could Sanders really, as he claims, put Texas and other states with big Latino populations into play?

Since Trump’s election, there’s a ready-made answer for all such questions: Stranger things have happened. And our political life these days is nothing if not strange.

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Read more:

Read a letter responding to this column: Bernie Sanders is the front-runner, but there remain doubts

Paul Waldman: Democrats, stop freaking out about Bernie Sanders

Max Boot: Vote for Bernie, elect Trump

Brian Klaas: Can Sanders beat Trump in Midwest swing districts? A cautionary tale from Minnesota.

Helaine Olen: Democratic voters are rallying around Sanders. Why can’t elites?

John W. Rowe: Are people in their 70s healthy enough to run the country? Yes.

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