After last night’s defeat in New York it will be next to impossible for Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. But he has transformed the complexion of US politics. He has described the movement behind him as a ‘political revolution’, and while it can be framed historically – Sanders often invokes both Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – his radicalism is unprecedented for a potential nominee in recent times.

The Sanders campaign has mobilised volunteers in a way nobody could have anticipated, with half a million Americans taking his message to the country so far. Last weekend, thousands of them made a total of three million calls to voters in New York. Sanders has received more than five million individual donations from nearly two million donors, the average coming in at under $30. (Hillary Clinton boasted last month that she had one million donors, and that 94 per cent of donations were less than $100 each.) According to current polls, Sanders would beat Donald Trump in November by a wider margin than Clinton.

But what happens to all that infrastructure, and all that hope, if – or rather when – Sanders fails to get a shot at the White House? There may be a clue in the after-effects of the Howard Dean campaign for the Democratic nomination 12 years ago. Dean was the early pacesetter, consistently polling first in Iowa in 2003 and gaining Al Gore’s endorsement at the turn of the year. His campaign was the first in US electoral politics to use digital media, specifically MeetUp, as an effective means of mobilising activists offline.

Dean failed to win the nomination, but his efforts were a turning point for the way his party organised. Jascha Franklin Hodge, Clay Johnson, Ben Self and Joe Rospars, all members of his team, went on to found Blue State Digital, a consultancy which powered the online presence of Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Rospars served as Obama’s New Media Director in 2008; Matthew Gross, the Dean campaign’s founding blogger, worked for John Edwards. Nicco Mele, Dean’s webmaster, and Michael Silberman, Dean’s national MeetUp director, co-founded EchoDitto, a competitor to BSD.

Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee, started life in 2001 as a PAC for Dean’s coming presidential tilt. It has gone on to have one million members, providing important endorsements for Obama in 2008 and Sanders this time. Zack Exley, who worked for Dean before heading up John Kerry’s online operation in 2004, went on to co-found the New Organising Institute, a non-profit responsible for training Democrat party digital organisers. Exley is now a senior adviser to the Sanders team.

The unofficial ‘Dean Nation’ blog was an early publisher of journalists like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. In short, many of the people around Dean determined the kind of campaign Barack Obama would win with four years later.

It’s easy to draw parallels between the Sanders campaigns and Obama’s, with all its lost promise. But the latter depended on a single, charismatic politician. Sanders is certainly likeable, but his campaign isn’t all about him. And while Obama drew on established networks in the Democratic Party, especially Dean’s, the Sanders campaign – with its huge emphasis on volunteers – draws energy instead from the activist movements that have emerged since 2010. As one of the founders of the unofficial People for Bernie Facebook page put it last month, ‘a lot of the people who got attracted to the campaign had experience with movements like Occupy or #FightFor15 … the Sanders team didn’t build it – the Sanders team can’t dismantle it.’

From same-sex marriage to the decriminalisation of drugs, along with more progressive public attitudes on class, race and LGBTQ issues, American politics has been transformed over the last decade. The Obama presidency, however disappointing, can be situated in that turn. And yet, while public attitudes changed and the country saw its first African-American president, the Republican Party won back Congress – largely because congressional elections have much lower turnouts than presidential ones.

If the new social movements currently remaking America are to find electoral expression beyond the White House, #FeeltheBern needs to think long-term about how it can change both the Democratic Party and the country. Given the numbers working for Sanders these last few months, and their comparative youth, that seems more probable than possible. The consequences of the Howard Dean campaign are still felt today. Those of the Sanders campaign, whether he is nominated or not, will last much longer.

Read more in the London Review of Books

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