Sen. Bernie Sanders is a self-described socialist in a country where socialism is unpopular, and many observers are convinced that Sanders’s lead over President Donald Trump in head-to-head polling would vanish in the face of a red-scare campaign from Republicans.
It is difficult to know whether that’s true or not, but a recent message-testing experiment run by the progressive group Data for Progress at least calls that theory into question.
In their experiment, tagging Sanders as a socialist did not seem to undermine his campaign — something we’ve also seen over the years in Vermont. Sanders consistently does a bit better in elections for his Senate seat than you would expect from the state’s baseline party lean.
The poll: Calling Sanders a socialist doesn’t change much
Data for Progress used the Lucid survey sampling platform to test three different versions of a Sanders and Trump polling matchup question. The survey was in the field from January 9 to January 19 of 2020 and ran these three polls:
- No information: “If the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was held today, who would you vote for if the candidates were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump?”
- Partisan cues: “If the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was held today, who would you vote for if the candidates were Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump?”
- Socialists and billionaires: “If the 2020 U.S. Presidential election was held today, who would you vote for if the candidates were Democrat Bernie Sanders, who wants to tax the billionaire class to help the working class and Republican Donald Trump, who says Sanders is a socialist who supports a government takeover of healthcare and open borders?”
In all three versions, Bernie beats Trump, albeit by slightly different margins. Sanders does best in the version of the question that provides no information at all. Giving the candidates their partisan labels increases Sanders’s lead somewhat, and giving the hypothetical messages leaves Sanders with a lead that’s somewhere in between the two other scenarios.
A simple polling question can’t simulate the impact of an entire months-long political campaign. But since concerns about Sanders are driven in part by the accurate observation that “socialism” as a label polls poorly in the United States, the fact that affixing that label to Sanders doesn’t really shift polling at all tells you something.
The political party that cried wolf?
The authors don’t try to explain why this is, but one possibility that comes to mind is Republicans have been characterizing Democratic Party support for higher taxes and a more generous welfare state as “socialism” for a long time.
It’s true that Sanders accepts the label and says that to him the meaning of socialism is something like the New Deal vision of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most Democrats reject the label and say they believe in capitalism tempered by regulation and a welfare state. And Sanders’s vision of welfare state expansion goes a lot further than most Democrats.
But Republicans have been characterizing all welfare state expansion as socialism forever, which may have somewhat deadened the argument as a message.
Alternatively, it’s possible that the socialism label is effective but the Sanders counter-message in this poll about taxing billionaires is also effective.
Regardless, it is at least not obvious that simply calling Sanders a socialist does much harm to him politically. It doesn’t change the basic observation that most polls show him with a modest lead over Trump.