Would Americans vote for a socialist?

A new poll has a conflicting message about whether Americans (outside of Vermont and the Bronx) would vote for a “socialist.” And this may be more a lesson in the importance of semantics and marketing, than substance.

A Hill.TV/HarrisX American Barometer poll shows that 76% of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a “socialist” candidate.

Sixty-four percent of Democrats say the same: They wouldn’t vote for a candidate who was socialist.

But there’s an interesting wrinkle. When you look at other polls, not about “socialism,” but rather about Bernie Sanders, who is a socialist, you find pretty strong support for Sanders nationally. Quinnipiac found in May that Sanders would beat Trump by 10 points. So clearly being a socialist isn’t a deal-killer.

So what’s going on here? Marketing.

Bernie Sanders Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Americans of a certain age — I’d wager 45 and up — are not thrilled about the term socialist. To them it means communist, which means Soviet. It’s wrapped up in a lot of historical baggage from the Cold War, and countries like Cuba, Russia and China. But, a lot of Americans are favorably disposed to proposals that are popular in socialist countries, such as making health care and education more widely available to everyone. So I’d argue it’s a marketing problem, rather than one of substance.

I’m reminded of a Newsweek poll about Obamacare back in 2010. The poll found that Americans hated Obamacare, but they loved its components. In other words, they didn’t like the proposal when it was associated with Obama’s health care reform, but when asked about the substance of the proposal they loved it.

More from Newsweek:

When asked about Obama’s [health care reform] plan (without being given any details about what the legislation includes), 49 percent opposed it and 40 percent were in favor. But after hearing key features of the legislation described, 48 percent supported the plan and 43 percent remained opposed.

The NEWSWEEK Poll asked respondents about eight health-care-reform provisions that Obama and many Democrats in Congress have generally supported. It found that the majority of Americans supported five of those provisions, three by particularly large margins. Eighty-one percent agreed with the creation of a new insurance marketplace, the exchange, for individual subscribers to compare plans and buy insurance at a competitive rate. Seventy-six percent thought health insurers should be required to cover anyone who applies, including those with preexisting conditions; and 75 percent agreed with requiring most businesses to offer health insurance to their employees, with incentives for small-business owners to do so.

So in politics, marketing can matter more than substance. Does that mean that Bernie can win the presidency, and the American people will warm up to Ocasi0-Cortez? Not necessarily. It depends who wins the debate over what they stand for and how they’re labeled. As the new poll shows, “socialism” is still a dirty word to the majority of Americans, and even a majority of Democrats. And while one can argue that “young people don’t feel the same way,” young people don’t vote. Their socialist-hating parents do.

Now, Bernie did well in 2016. And at least one poll shows he’d beat Trump by 10 points. But 2016 wasn’t a discussion of Bernie Sanders’ socialism. Hillary didn’t go there. And the Republicans certainly didn’t go there, because they wanted a strong Bernie to undercut Hillary Clinton. So I’d argue that we never had a national debate — organized and spun by the GOP — about what it means that Bernie Sanders is a socialist. We really don’t know whether he’d take in the polls after months of Republicans questioning his patriotism and “radicalism.”

We’re starting to have that debate now, because the Republicans have finally engaged on the issue, and are trying to start a national discussion about the Democratic party being taken over by socialists. Thi is a discussion the GOP has a lot of experience with. They’ve been smearing Democrats as socialists and communists for decades, and to great effect. They’re simply better at negative campaigning — at lying about their opponents — than we are.

Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez may have some great and popular ideas, but the Republican effort to once again paint Democrats (or Democratic socialists) as commies has only just begun. Don’t assume that it won’t be effective because it hasn’t been so far. The Republican smear machine is only just getting started.


CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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