Pundits have all but written Bernie Sanders out of the race but his fans are not letting go of their dream. They still want to believe he can take his promise of a fairer society all the way to the White House.
Sanders is mounting a last stand in the progressive bastion of California, which holds its primary next week, to prove -- against all odds -- that he can defeat Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic standard-bearer in a match-up against Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Giovan Lunar, a 21-year-old biology student, emerged fired up Thursday from an afternoon rally in Modesto, a small town in the center of the most populous US state.
“He’s giving us hope. He really cares about our future,” said the young man, sporting black-rimmed glasses and a pencil mustache -- and undeterred by Clinton’s overwhelming lead in the delegate race.
Three thousand people braved scorching heat to hear the Vermont senator pitch his promise of free health care, higher taxes on the rich and legal marijuana, a week before the final “Super Tuesday” of 2016 when six states vote including California.
“If we have a large turnout, we’re going to win,” Sanders told the crowd, who roared back: “Bernie! Bernie!” and “Feel the Bern!”
Prince and David Bowie tracks set the mood and the occasional whiff of marijuana floated in the air as actress Susan Sarandon -- a longtime friend of the 74-year-old Sanders -- whipped up the multi-ethnic, multi-generational crowd.
In Modesto, many of Sanders’s supporters are young people who will vote for the first time in the November presidential election.
“He’s an inspiration. Look at this crowd. He has a great message to youth about unemployment, student debt,” said Misael Villeda, a 24-year-old psychology student. “He’s energized the Democratic Party.”
But Clinton is also campaigning hard in California to snatch victory from Sanders -- and take his last remaining argument for staying in the presidential race off the table. And the odds are in her favor.
The US presidential nominations process is based on winning delegates, and Clinton has already amassed 2,313, according to CNN’s tally, just 70 shy of the number needed to clinch the nomination. Sanders is considerably behind, at 1,546.
Several hundred delegates are up for grabs next Tuesday, and Clinton is all but assured of passing the threshold.
However steep the odds, the Sanders camp is not giving up -- starting with Sarandon, who told AFP she fully expected Clinton to be indicted over her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
“A lot of the super-delegates are changing their mind,” Sarandon said.
Sanders has long argued that Clinton’s lead is based on her broad advantage with so-called super-delegates, party grandees who can vote for whoever they wish at the national convention in July.
Without the huge super-delegate advantage, Clinton’s lead is much narrower.
But much as they want to believe in his chances, many Sanders supporters are already soul-searching over what to do if Clinton triumphs over their champion.
Some, like Villeda, are resolved to do what it takes to keep Trump from the presidency.
“Hillary needs us to win,” he said -- consoling herself with the hope that Sanders’ strong challenge to Clinton will give him leverage to shape party policy.
Others find it harder to stomach the idea of backing a candidate they fought tooth-and-nail.
Artiste Booker, an African American stay-at-home-mother, calls her a Republican in disguise -- a frequent line of attack from the Sanders camp.
“She’s not honest. She’s not truthful. Look at her emails,” said the 31-year-old.
Booker says she would struggle to pick between Trump and Clinton: “It would be like choosing between two evils.”
Trump has repeatedly said he is confident he can win over supporters of the self-style democratic socialist -- with whom he shares a protectionist platform on trade, and an anti-establishment message that has proven powerfully appealing in the White House race so far.
And some of the most extreme voices in the Sanders camp have indeed suggested a Trump presidency would be preferable to electing Clinton.
But that argument got short shrift from Leroy Smith, a 26-year-old bartender with a bold afro: “It’s like calling to vote for Hitler to topple the system.”
Plus, he says, “Trump is a bad businessman, and it’s the last thing this country needs.”
Marie Frazier, a 59-year-old homemaker, is torn about her choice come November.
“I love Bernie Sanders. I don’t want to give up the idea of voting for Bernie Sanders,” she said. “But I don’t want Donald Trump to win.”