Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has set himself apart from the rest of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field by openly declaring himself a “Democratic Socialist,” a label he has long worn with pride. Even candidates who share many of his ideological inclinations, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who declares herself a capitalist, have avoided the term.
Some of Sanders’ opponents in the primary are warning against the label, and pretty clearly, his candidacy. Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper both are warning that Democrats running against Trump on a platform of “socialism” are destined to be defeated by Trump in 2020.
It’s a warning to take seriously, but is it true? At Thursday night’s debate, the question was put to Sanders, and he had a compelling answer.
“What is your response to those who say nominating a ‘socialist’ would re-elect Donald Trump?” asked moderator Savannah Guthrie.
“Well, I think the responses at the polls, last poll, has us ten points ahead of Donald Trump,” Sanders noted.
He’s right. A recent poll from Emerson University had him running 10 points ahead of Donald Trump. And a previous Quinnipiac University poll showed him leading by 9 points. Joe Biden, the only candidate in the primary likely to have better name recognition than Sanders, did even better, running 13 points ahead of Trump in that poll. But the embrace the of the term “socialism” certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting the Vermont senator, and he was winning by a larger margin against Trump than any other Democrat mentioned in the Quinnipiac poll aside from Biden. An average of recent head-to-head polling from Real Clear Politics found Sanders running on average 6.5 points above Trump. This suggests that, despite some polls showing a majority of Americans wouldn’t vote for a socialist, the term doesn’t really seem to be the death knell for Sanders that Hickenlooper and Delaney think it is.
Being a “Democratic Socialist” is what Sanders is known for. If it really were the hindrance so many suspect, they need to explain why it isn’t currently hurting his polling numbers. Even in Florida, a key state that many expect to be skeptical of socialism, Sanders is running 6 points ahead of Trump.
It’s possible this could change in a general election with the whole apparatus of right-wing media coordinated in attacking Sanders. But right-wing media will paint whoever gets the Democratic nomination as a dangerous socialist no matter what. It’s far from clear that having a Delaney or a Hickenlooper saying, “No, we’re really not socialists” would be better than Sanders saying, “So what?” The polling suggests the attack isn’t likely to damage Sanders more than anyone else.
And the rest of Sanders’ answer showed how he would turn attacks around on Trump.
“People understand that Trump is a phony, Trump is a pathological liar and a racist, and that he lied to the American people during his campaign. He said he was going stand up for working families — well, President Trump, you’re not standing up for working families when you’re trying to throw 32 million people off their health care that they have. And that 83 percent of your tax benefits go to the top 1 percent,” said Sanders. “That’s how we beat Trump — we expose him for the fraud that he is.”