During the January 14th, 2016 Republican debate in North Charleston, South Carolina, the following exchange occurred:
[MARIA] BARTIROMO, [FOX BUSINESS NETWORK ANCHOR]: Governor Kasich…
… Governor Kasich, Hillary Clinton is getting some serious competition from Senator Bernie Sanders. He’s now at 41 percent in the latest CBS/New York Times poll. Vice President Biden sang his praises, saying Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real, and he has credibility on it.
So what does it say about our country that a candidate who is a self-avowed socialist and who doesn’t think a 90 percent tax rate is too high could be the Democratic nominee?
[GOV. JOHN] KASICH, [R-OHIO]: Well, if that’s the case, we’re going to win every state, if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. That’s not even an issue. But look…
… and I know Bernie, and I can promise you he’s not going to be president of the United States.
Now, I already discussed yesterday that this idea that Fox News is pushing that Bernie Sanders ever advocated a 90 percent tax rate is complete bullshit. But it’s true that Sanders is a “self-avowed Socialist.”
Of course, back in November, Sanders gave a speech describing what he means when he uses the term “socialist,” and it doesn’t mean that he wants to turn America into a Maoist re-education compound or a Leninist summer camp in the Catskills.
But that’s really neither here nor there. The question we want an answer to is whether or not America would actually elect a socialist as their president.
Back in July, Gallup ask people whether “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person to be president who happened to be ______, would you vote for that person?
Here were their results:
Now, obviously, socialism got its butt kicked in this survey question, coming in as the only fill-in-the-blank to register below fifty percent.
However, “socialism” was the only transparently ideological category. Even an atheist could be a Republican, but not a socialist. I mean, you would think? Right?
Okay, so maybe we can find some Republicans who like the sound of Bernie’s platform, but there’s a reason that an ideology did worse in this poll than any religion. Among the options, the socialism question was the strongest indicator to conservatives that this hypothetical nominee might not be down with their agenda. What you want to compare “Socialist” to is not “Mormon” or “lesbian.” You want to compare it to liberal or conservative. How many Democrats would (say that they would) vote for a conservative nominee and how many Republicans would (say that they would) vote for a liberal nominee?
Beyond that, people know they’re not supposed to say that they wouldn’t vote for someone because they’re black or Latino or gay or Catholic. But they’re pretty sure it’s okay to say that you won’t vote for someone because they’re too far left or too far right in their politics.
So, yes, more people say that they’d vote for a homosexual, black Mormon woman than say they would vote for a Socialist. These results don’t mean much, though.
A somewhat better measure was taken recently in Iowa, where a Selzer & Company poll found some interesting results in their data. Among likely Democratic caucus-goers, 43 percent described themselves as socialists and 38% described themselves as capitalists (compared to 4% socialist and 62% capitalist among likely Republican caucus-goers). A separate New York Times/CBS News poll from November showed that “56 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally said they had a positive view of socialism.”
Okay, so Democrats are loving themselves some socialism. But that doesn’t tell us whether a socialist can win the general election.
If we go back a little further to a December 2011 Pew Research Poll, we find that “Socialism is a negative for most Americans, but certainly not all. Six-in-ten (60%) say they have a negative reaction to the word; 31% have a positive reaction. Those numbers are little changed from when the question was last asked in April 2010.”
Sixty percent negative reaction is very bad. So, who were the other forty percent who didn’t have a negative reaction?
In only two categories did Pew Research find a majority of people with a positive response to the word “socialism”: blacks (55%-36%) and self-described “liberal Democrats” (59%-33%). There was also a plurality of 18-29 year olds who responded favorably (49%-43%).
Every other group or subgroup saw socialism as a negative.
So, what we’re seeing here is that Sanders might be able to win the Democratic nomination while bearing the socialist label, but that it’s not exactly a big plus for him. And we have little evidence to show that he’d find easy rowing in the general election.
I’m not sure that Gov. John Kasich is justified in being so confident that Sanders would lose all 50 states, but I also don’t think David Atkins is justified in his confidence that Sanders would do just fine and have no negative impact on down-ballot races.
I think Atkins wrote a well-reasoned piece, and I’m not going to rebut it in full here. What I will say is that Sanders hasn’t been put through the meat grinder yet. He may look more electable than Hillary in a couple of recent polls and his policies may poll well in the abstract, but that’s just preliminary data that should be encouraging to Sanders’ supporters but shouldn’t give anyone the idea that these questions have been settled.
Socialism is still a dirty word, even if it isn’t anywhere near as dirty as it used to be, and even if the post-Cold War kids aren’t conditioned against it. If Sanders is the nominee, the Republicans and their big business allies will spend north of a billion dollars trying to make “socialism” less popular than Windows Vista.
Maybe this anti-socialism campaign will have no more effect than Jeb Bush’s spending seems to have, but there is a difference. Jeb is one candidate in a crowded field, not the nominee facing off against a single Democratic opponent.
And, then, since political reporters never lose their jobs, most of them are old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and good James Bond movies. They think that they know what this country will and won’t tolerate, and it won’t tolerate socialism via Vermont.
So, with Sanders, you get a divided Democratic Party that has to take on big money in a Citizen’s United world with a candidate who refuses to accept big donations and is relentlessly hostile to the financial sector. Big corporate media won’t be happy, and their reporters will think it’s the second coming of the Angolan War.
All these factors have to be weighed.
And, you know, I can make up a very long list of Hillary Clinton’s vulnerabilities, too. But they are different vulnerabilities, and of the sort that people are familiar with working around. The party establishment is very united behind her. The business community likes her at least as well as they liked Obama back in 2008, and probably better. And a lot of folks who can’t stomach Trump will come over to her because they lived through her husband’s presidency and know it wasn’t so bad. Giving them Trump vs. Sanders is a tougher call.
I’m not here to endorse anyone, but I think that it’s still hard to make an honest case that Sanders is in any way proven to be more electable than Clinton, especially because he’d have to resuscitate the entire Democratic establishment if Clinton falls on her face a second time and cannot win the nomination.
At this point, Sanders is a huge risk. And that’s what honesty compels me to advise you.
That way, you can know if it’s a risk you think is worth taking.