The Great Socialism Gap

Socialism doesn’t freak out Democratic voters the way it freaks out other Americans. That’s a problem.

Bernie Sanders, viewed in profile, adjusts his glasses while standing behind a microphone.
Bernie Sanders speaks on Saturday in San Antonio, Texas, after winning the Nevada caucuses. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

For the past month, the centrist Democrats running against Sen. Bernie Sanders have begged Democratic voters not to nominate him. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar have argued that putting a socialist atop the ticket would help President Donald Trump and hurt Democratic candidates down the ballot. These warnings are well-founded, but they haven’t worked. Sanders has won the popular vote in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

Why, despite the warnings, is Sanders still winning? One reason is that a lot of people like him and what he stands for. Another reason is that other candidates are splitting the votes of moderate Democrats, leaving him with a plurality on the left. But there’s a third reason: Socialism doesn’t freak out Democratic voters the way it freaks out other Americans. On this subject, Democrats are very different not just from Republicans, but also from independents, who represent about 40 percent of Americans and about 30 percent of the electorate. Socialism is a loser among independents, and this makes it a liability in a general election. But Democrats don’t feel an aversion to socialism. So perhaps they don’t see the extent of the political danger.

The detachment starts with Sanders voters. In a September poll taken by Data for Progress, 37 percent of them identified themselves not as progressives or liberals, but as socialists, democratic socialists, or communists. Nearly all of them endorsed democratic socialism. In a January NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, most Sanders voters endorsed socialism even without the word “democratic” in front of it. Only 4 percent of them opposed it. These people aren’t likely to buy the argument that nominating a socialist is an unnecessary risk. For them, electing a socialist is the ballgame.

But the problem goes beyond Sanders supporters. Rank-and-file Democrats, as a whole, are significantly more pro-socialist than independents are. And while Republicans, conversely, are more anti-socialist than independents are, the gap between Democrats and independents, on average, is about 10 points bigger than the gap between Republicans and independents.

Over the past year, numerous national polls have asked Americans whether they view socialism positively or negatively. In every poll, Democrats lean in favor of socialism, and independents don’t. In every poll, the opinions of voters or of Americans in the aggregate—Democrats, independents, and Republicans combined—add up to a net rejection of socialism.

When pollsters raise specific objections to socialism, independents tend to agree with those objections. Democrats don’t. In a Monmouth poll taken last spring, most Democrats said socialism wouldn’t take away too many individual rights. But most independents (and therefore most voters, when the answers of Democrats, independents, and Republicans were combined) said it would. A plurality of Democrats, 50 percent to 32 percent, said socialism was compatible with American values. But most independents and voters as a whole said it wasn’t.

It won’t surprise you to hear that Democrats are far more willing than independents to support a socialist candidate. But you might be surprised by how much bigger the partisan gap is for a socialist than for other kinds of candidates. In a Gallup poll taken last month, Democrats didn’t differ much from independents in their stated willingness to vote for a black, female, gay, or atheist presidential nominee. For a Muslim nominee, the gap was more then 30 net percentage points. For a socialist, it was more than 60 points. Three-quarters of Democrats were willing to vote for a socialist. Most independents—and, consequently, most of the Gallup respondents—weren’t.

Why are Americans more likely to refuse (or, at least, to tell pollsters that they refuse) to vote for a socialist than for a woman or a Muslim? Probably because socialism isn’t an innate characteristic or a matter of personal faith. It’s a doctrine about how government should intervene in the lives of other people. That makes it a legitimate reason to vote against a candidate and therefore—unlike race, sex, or religion—a legitimate factor when you’re considering whether to nominate a candidate other voters won’t support.

This chasm endangers Sanders in a general election against Trump. In an ABC/Washington Post poll taken last summer, Biden led Trump in a hypothetical matchup by 10 points. Other potential Democratic nominees tied Trump or barely led him. Sanders held a one-point lead among independents and among voters as a whole. But when respondents were asked to choose between Trump and “a Democratic candidate who you regard as a socialist,” the numbers shifted. Democrats, by a margin of 82 percent to 8 percent, said they’d support the socialist. Independents, given the same choice, went for Trump, 50 percent to 42 percent. With their support, Trump beat the hypothetical socialist, 49 percent to 43 percent.

You could argue, based on this survey, that people who say they’d never vote for a socialist would, in fact, vote for Sanders anyway. He polls fairly well against Trump, and he claims that if Trump attacks him as a socialist, voters will ignore the attacks, because Trump “lies all the time.” But Sanders isn’t an accused socialist. He’s a self-identified socialist. A follow-up survey, taken a week ago by ABC and the Post, shows that this label would hurt him. The pollsters told half their sample that “Sanders identifies himself as a socialist,” and they asked whether “his being a socialist” made respondents more or less likely to support him against Trump. For Democrats, that information was a wash or a net plus. But for independents, it was a loser. Six percent of independents said it made them more likely to support Sanders. Thirty-seven percent said it made them less likely.*

Sanders stipulates that he’s a “democratic” socialist. That distinction helps him, but mostly among Democrats. In a Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken two weeks ago, Democrats agreed that democratic socialism was different from socialism. But a plurality of independents saw no difference. (Voters as a whole were evenly divided.) Only 45 percent of Democrats conceded that Sanders was a socialist; 30 percent said he wasn’t. But more than 60 percent of independents and voters as a whole said Sanders was a socialist. Fewer than 20 percent said he wasn’t.

Running as a democratic socialist isn’t as lethal as running as a socialist. But it’s still pretty bad. In an Emerson poll taken last summer, a plurality of independents (42 percent to 26 percent) said they wouldn’t vote for a self-described democratic socialist. In a November HarrisX poll, 64 percent of independents said they’d never vote for a democratic socialist. In this month’s Yahoo News poll, a 47 percent plurality of independents said they wouldn’t consider voting for a presidential candidate who called himself a democratic socialist. And in the new Post/ABC poll, 33 percent of independents said they were less likely to support Sanders after hearing that he “identifies himself as a democratic socialist.”*

Some advocates of a Sanders nomination believe that independents aren’t really in play. They argue that independents lean toward one party or the other and will vote that way, so it’s more important to turn out the Democratic base than to fuss over voters in the middle. That belief is mistaken. In 2016, independents voted for Trump against Hillary Clinton, 46 percent to 42 percent. In 2018, independents voted for Democratic House candidates against Republican House candidates, 54 percent to 42 percent. In both cases, independents made the difference.

Most Americans don’t like the idea of moving toward socialism, regardless of how you qualify it. In a Suffolk poll taken last spring, a slight plurality of Democrats said they’d be “satisfied with a presidential candidate who thinks the United States should be more socialist.” But steep majorities of independents (72 percent to 18 percent) and voters in the aggregate (67 percent to 22 percent) said they wouldn’t. Most Republicans wouldn’t vote for the Democratic nominee regardless. But these grim numbers go much further.

Democrats, perhaps because they differ from the rest of the electorate in their feelings about socialism, are bad at estimating how socialism would play in a general election. Two weeks ago, in the Yahoo News poll, a 49 percent plurality of Democrats said most, nearly all, or about half of Americans would consider voting for a presidential candidate who called himself a democratic socialist. The guess was incorrect. According to the same poll, only 35 percent of voters said they’d consider voting for such a candidate. Democrats got it wrong.

Yes, Sanders could try to duck the word socialism and just talk about health care and education. But even if he focuses on specific proposals—leaving labels aside—he’ll still face a big divide between Democrats and independents. In the Yahoo News poll, only 39 percent of Democrats opposed “eliminating private health insurance.” Fifty-seven percent of independents opposed that idea. Democrats overwhelmingly favored “a guaranteed annual income” and “forgiveness of all student loan debt.” Independents opposed both policies.

These numbers explain why it’s so hard to stop Sanders in the primary, even though his opponents are correct that in a general election, his socialism would alienate independents and hurt him. The audience to whom these opponents are speaking—the Democratic primary electorate—doesn’t seem to want to hear it. If Sanders wins the nomination and loses the election, it won’t be because Republicans, on this question, falsely accused Democrats of being out of touch with America. It will be because that accusation was true.

Correction, Feb. 24, 2020: This article originally misstated results from the February Washington Post/ABC poll. Six percent of independents said that knowing Sanders identifies as a socialist made them more likely to support him, not three percent. Meanwhile, 37 percent said it made them less likely to support him, not 79 percent. Likewise, 33 percent of independents said they were less likely to support Sanders after hearing that he “identifies himself as a democratic socialist,” not 37 percent.