The Democratic presidential candidates verbally jousting on the debate stage and selling themselves at campaign stops include a self-declared democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, and several other leading candidates who embrace policies similar to his. That gives rise to one of the campaign’s key questions: Might the eventual nominee be too far left to win the general election?
Those who support the Democratic Party are likely to prefer Bernie to Trump from the get-go, and from that starting point they’ll be inclined to like Bernie’s plans and policies.
I doubt it. It’s become clear that Americans are willing to countenance far more ideological options than we would have expected even a few years ago, on both the left and the right. One explanation for this growing ideological diversity should reassure Bernie Sanders, the most radical Democratic presidential candidate and the only one who proudly wears the socialist label: According to some political scientists, voters will often follow the lead of their political figures to greater extremes of political thought. Indeed, researchers have found that American voters shift toward increasingly radical political views, and even entire ideologies, to match those of the candidate they intend to vote for, rather than voting for the candidate whose views are closest to their own.
Since there’s a large bloc of enthusiastic voters of the left who will participate in the Democratic primary process, they might push the nominee further toward socialism than the rest of the country would prefer. In one such indicator, a Suffolk University poll found that nearly 60 percent of Democrats in New Hampshire, which will hold the first presidential primary in February 2020, said they would “be satisfied with a presidential candidate who thinks the United States should be more socialist.”
But strong support for socialism tapers off outside of the Democratic base. That same Suffolk poll found that only 30 percent of all voters would be satisfied with a socialist candidate — and 61 percent wouldn’t be. Moreover, we know that socialism is a scary word in American politics. Twenty-one percent of respondents to a Business Insider survey believe that socialism threatens America.
If the concept is this unpopular, it raises the fear that a Democratic nominee who can easily be painted as a socialist might not be “electable,” thereby handing four more years to the incumbent. So why shouldn’t Democrats, assessing candidates with the general election in mind because they see defeating President Donald Trump as so important, pick a safer option like, say, good old Joe Biden?
It’s a compelling argument that relies on a simple, well-known and coherent story about what determines the way people vote: Citizens decide which politician to support based on how well the candidates' positions align with their own policy preferences. Therefore, if someone doesn’t believe in socialism, they won’t vote for candidates who call themselves socialists.
But Gabriel Lenz, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, takes a different view of how political opinions are linked to voting choice. In 2009, he wrote that voters tend to “adopt their preferred party’s or candidate’s position as their own.” In other words, they aren’t choosing the candidate that best represents their ideas about government, but rather adapting their ideas to the candidate.
So those who support the Democratic Party are likely to prefer Bernie to Trump from the get-go, and from that starting point they’ll be inclined to like Bernie’s plans and policies. (Political scientists have proposed dozens of mechanisms to try to explain how we form our still fairly inexplicable allegiances to politicians, including our party identity, our family history and so-called “bread and peace” societal fundamentals.)
To back up his claims, Lenz uses the results of panel surveys that repeatedly poll the same individuals over a long period of time. By using these surveys from past elections, like George W. Bush versus Al Gore in 2000, he can watch voters update their opinions to “follow the lead” of their preferred candidate.
For instance, Bush’s plan to release Social Security funds to individuals to invest in the market and Gore’s “lockbox” plan, which promised the opposite, drew a lot of coverage during the closing stages of that election. Most people didn’t know much about the arcane issue of investing Social Security monies before it became a flashpoint in the race, so they had to learn about it through news coverage and campaign ads.
Generally, they did so while already preferring one of the candidates, which predisposed them to agree with that candidate on the issue. “When people who like Bush learn that he supports investing Social Security funds,” Lenz found, “they also become supportive of investing.”
Now, you could say that both Sanders and socialism are known quantities in American politics, so voters have less to learn about them than Social Security solvency. And the specter of socialism evokes such strong feelings that one would assume that people have already made up their minds about it. Yet polling data suggests that people can be further educated about the modern version of the ideology. Nearly a quarter of millennial respondents to a Buzzfeed poll conducted in September 2018 said they weren’t socialists or democratic socialists but did need to “learn more.”
It’s clear that Americans do, indeed, have a lot to learn about socialism — and that education could dispel some of their fears. An Axios poll found that 57 percent of people believe socialism entails state-controlled media and communications, and half believe leaders would be selected nondemocratically in such a system. Sanders, of course, wouldn’t agree with either statement.
And although Bernie has been in the public eye a lot over the past five years, his exposure isn’t the same as that enjoyed by a presidential nominee, which comes with a unified party apparatus and messaging infrastructure as well as heightened media coverage. In such circumstances, voters would be able to learn a great deal about socialism, as they learn about all major topics during elections.
It may also seem doubtful that voters would be open to changing their opinions about socialism given the ideology’s long history steeped in Cold War animosity. But Americans have shifted on highly emotional and history-laden topics before.
After the 2016 election, Peter Enns, a Cornell political scientist, used the same panel survey methodology as Lenz to measure the way people’s opinions on racial issues and immigration had changed throughout the campaign. After asking people for their opinions on issues both before the campaign and after voting, he found that many Republicans shifted their opinions about race and immigration to fit with Trump.
In May 2015, before Trump became the nominee, for example, panelists who believed negative statements about black people weren’t more likely to support Trump than any other Rebulican candidate. More than a year later, and just months before the election, things had changed. In one case, for instance, Enns showed that those who supported Trump in 2015 had become more opposed by August 2016 to Black Lives Matter — an advocacy group critical of police over the fatal shootings of African-Americans. Again, as Trump’s supporters learned of his stances, they took them on as their own.
Trump’s singular unpopularity will give the Democratic nominee a welcome nudge toward being the preferred candidate at the outset of the race.
If Trump supporters were willing to change their opinions about race, it seems less likely that Democrats could nominate someone sufficiently outside the mainstream to scare off voters inclined to support the party. Whether Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg or another top candidate wins the nomination, we can expect all of their policies to attract support as people come to learn about them during the saturation coverage of a general election.
And for the all-important independent voters who can swing the election in key states, Trump’s singular unpopularity will give the Democratic nominee a welcome nudge toward being the preferred candidate at the outset of the race. According to Gallup, only 34 percent of independents approve of Trump’s job performance right now, and that will push them toward whomever the Democrats select.
Once that candidate gets their attention and preliminary support, the nominee will then have the opportunity to educate them about his or her policies — starting by choosing the curriculum.