How Bernie Sanders has already won

Story highlights

  • David Axelrod: Bernie Sanders will likely not get nomination, but he has won in other significant ways
  • He says Sanders' candidacy has nudged Hillary Clinton to take up issues of inequality, lift middle class and champion gun safety

David Axelrod is CNN's senior political commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files." He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Bernie Sanders has won.

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Not the nomination, of course. That is almost certainly not going to happen. Barring an unforeseen development, Hillary Clinton's grasp on the party's nomination is strong and getting stronger.
    Her triumphant October — a strong performance in the highly watched first Democratic debate in Las Vegas, a tour de force before the hapless House Benghazi panel, and Vice President Joe Biden's decision not to run -- have quieted Democratic bed-wetters and put Clinton firmly in the driver's seat.
    She leads nationally by a wide margin, and folks in Iowa, home of the first-in-the-nation contest, say her team is building the superior ground game she lacked in 2008. This is critical to victory in the organizationally rigorous caucuses.
    And while Sanders maintains an edge in New Hampshire, a victory there, after a loss in Iowa, would likely be written off as a home-court win for the senator from neighboring Vermont.
    After the first two contests, which take place in states as white as the winter snows, the terrain will shift dramatically in Clinton's favor. She holds solid leads in the two states that follow, Nevada and South Carolina, fueled by her imposing advantage among minority voters.
    With his significant fundraising, Sanders could hold on and perhaps win a few more states. But his spirited pursuit most likely will lead only to a trove of delegates with which to influence the party platform -- for whatever that is worth -- and earn him a prime time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
    Sanders needed Biden in the race to siphon establishment votes from Clinton and had to hope that her awkward stumbles of summer would continue into the fall. They haven't. She has righted the ship.
    Bernie Sanders: Politics isn't 'bull'
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    Still, the wild-haired septuagenarian should take solace in what he already has accomplished as he prepares for Saturday night's second debate in Des Moines.
    By building a movement around the issues of inequality, the plight of the embattled middle class and the outsized influence of Wall Street, Sanders has pushed Clinton to shed her caution and embrace these economic issues, albeit with a slightly more moderate pitch, as a centerpiece of her campaign.
    This has made her a stronger candidate than she otherwise might have been.
    Time will tell whether Clinton's abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Asian trade agreement she once hailed as the "gold standard," was a shrewd political decision. Her flip could flop if it becomes symbolic of a penchant for shape-shifting, leaving supporters of the TPP angry and opponents doubtful about her true commitment.
    But it's a pretty good guess that she might have made a different choice if she weren't up against Sanders, who, like the leaders of organized labor, is an ardent foe of free trade agreements.
    Bernie Sanders: Americans want the real issues
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    Clinton did her share of Second Amendment signifying to rural whites in her failed effort to derail Obama in the last race, even though the two differed little on the issue of guns. But this time, she has stressed her commitment to new gun safety measures.
    There surely have been enough horrific mass shootings since 2008 to warrant her new emphasis. The daily carnage of gun violence in our nation's cities, and high rate of suicides with guns cry out for action.
    But the cautious Hillary Clinton, who lived through a political backlash to her husband's gun control efforts in the '90s, could have been reticent to make gun safety a central theme, had Sanders not been in the race.
    It is, at least in part, the Vermont senator's rare apostasy, among progressives, on the issue of guns that has led Clinton to fill the airwaves with ads and her schedule with events highlighting her stance on gun safety issues.
    It sets up a helpful contrast.
    A self-styled pillar of principle, Sanders has sometimes voted his rural state's proclivities on guns, a departure that troubles some of his progressive supporters.
    I asked him a few weeks ago on my podcast, "The Axe Files," whether he would have voted the same way on guns had he been representing his native Brooklyn instead of Vermont. "Probably not," he replied, clearly uncomfortable with the issue. "I don't know."
    In guns, Clinton has found her cudgel, using it to ward off Sanders' attacks on her own "evolutions." It's one reason she has lifted up the issue of gun safety. She confronted him on guns in their last debate and almost certainly will flay him with it Saturday in Des Moines. And he will undoubtedly fire shots of his own, questioning Clinton's constancy and reliability.
    Expect a less convivial affair than their last meeting. The general bonhomie of Vegas is likely to stay in Vegas.
    When the introspective and irascible Sanders declared his candidacy earlier this year after a more luminous leader of the left, Elizabeth Warren, demurred, few gave him much of a chance. His candidacy seemed calculated less on winning than on pressing the party and its nominee to focus on the economic struggles and inequities so many Americans are facing.
    Since then, he has dramatically outperformed expectations and, in the heady days of summer, he and his enthusiastic army of supporters actually began to envision the 74-year-old democratic socialist as a potential winner.
    Today, Sanders is not on a trajectory to be the nominee. But his imprint is all over the Clinton campaign, from her voluminous proposals to attack income inequality and lift the middle class, to her emphasis on new steps for gun safety. And the positions she has taken could make her a stronger candidate come next November.
    Economic values will be a huge issue, and Clinton, nudged by Sanders to be more outspoken, is on the popular side of that fight.
    NRA adherents may recoil from her common sense gun safety proposals, mostly clustered around background checks and closing reporting loopholes. But those voters were never going her way. The short term target of her outspokenness is Sanders, but she will appeal to potentially decisive independent suburban women by highlighting her gun safety positions.
    He'll get no big title, plane or house for his efforts. But in driving the front-runner to bolder stances, Bernie Sanders already can claim victory.