Luckily for progressives Bernie’s going to finish third or fourth in the primaries, thus sparing them from having to face this reality in the general election.
Any poll on socialism is immediately met with the criticism, “What do you mean by ‘socialism’?” People define it in different ways. A right-winger might tell you that the welfare state is socialism; a left-winger would tell remind you that even someone as progressive as Elizabeth Warren continues to define herself as a capitalist. Earlier this week we had a poll in which 57 percent of the public declared “socialism” to be incompatible with American values and yet in the same poll 58 percent said they supported universal health care. Is that a “socialist” goal or not?
But here’s the bottom line: Regardless of how you define “socialist,” Bernie Sanders defines himself that way. It’s his brand, to the point where he’s resisted identifying as a member of the Democratic Party lest that brand be diluted. He’s gonna have to wear it and let people judge him for it. And for many that judgment won’t be kind.
Until recently, “atheist” was the worst trait a candidate for office could have that’s reasonably common across the general population. Even Muslims tend to be more appealing to voters. Socialism now enjoys that distinction, though, despite the recent prominence of Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The most striking thing about Gallup’s numbers to me is that socialism’s not only rock bottom in terms of public support, it hasn’t gained any support even though every other trait tested has. (Two weren’t tested in 2015.) You would expect Bernie’s 2016 insurgency and the rise of AOC to have helped mainstream socialism, especially at a moment when Americans are growing more willing to vote for candidates who break from the traditional mold. But that hasn’t happened — and this isn’t the only survey to show it. In March, a poll from NBC found just 25 percent of Americans willing to say they’d be “comfortable” with a nominee who’s socialist. That was *down* two points since October 2015. The Overton window might be moving towards socialism among the commentariat (isn’t it always?) but not among the genpop.
Look at the partisan numbers, though, and you’ll see that the story with socialism isn’t necessarily that the trend line is flat but that it’s being tugged in opposite directions at the same time, creating an appearance of flatness:
Four years ago, 59 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans said they’d be willing to vote for a socialist, a net divide of 33 points. Now they’re at 74 percent and 19 percent, respectively — a net gap of 55 points. As in so many other things, the parties are becoming more polarized around the issue. The Overton window *has* moved towards socialism, quite a bit, on the left but the backlash on the right is keeping it static across the population. Meanwhile, independents have held steady at 49 percent both in 2015 and now, suggesting that this will be a liability for Sanders to some extent as nominee. I wonder if the right-wing backlash to “socialism” is a pure reaction to its growing popularity on the left or if it’s being driven in an outsized way by the person of AOC, who’s become a lightning rod and an avatar to Republicans of what a DSA-led future would look like. What if Ocasio-Cortez has become a liability to Bernie?
If you can spare five minutes, compare how favorably the parties rated different candidate traits in 2015 versus how they rate them now in the table above. Four years ago, more Democrats said they’d vote for an evangelical Christian (66 percent) than a socialist (59 percent). Today it’s the opposite, with socialism at 74 percent and evangelical Christianity at 71 percent. Republicans are getting less comfortable with Muslim candidates, dropping from 45 percent willing to vote for one in 2015 to 38 percent now, while Democrats are becoming more comfortable, from 73 percent four years ago to 86 percent now. I wonder if that’s an “Ilhan Omar effect.” The numbers willing to vote for a gay candidate are also interesting in light of Pete Buttigieg’s popularity: Republicans willing to vote for someone gay are steady at 61 percent, but independents are up big from 73 percent to 82. Democrats, however, have actually slipped a tiny bit, from 85 percent to 83. What explains that?
For any Sanders fans tempted to despair at these results, here’s something to cheer you up: There’s evidence lately that Trump has slipped a bit among his base of whites without a college degree. That’s supposed to be Bernie’s strongest demo too. If he can figure out a way to become nominee he may have more opportunity than other potential nominees in siphoning off votes from POTUS.