Doing the Limbo With Bernie: A Sanders Nomination Will Crater Down-Ballot Democrats

Nominating a self-proclaimed socialist liked by American voters less than Muslims or atheists, will test how low party's fortunes can go

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 17: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters gathered for a meet-and-greet fundraising reception at the Park West on August 17, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Sanders' visit to Chicago follows a campaign trip to Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters gathered for a meet-and-greet fundraising reception at the Park West on August 17, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With the ongoing controversy surrounding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server and what may or may not have been on it, a number of media outlets are telling us that panicky Democrats have reportedly begun to wonder about Ms. Clinton’s viability in the 2016 general election.

Also taking comfort from this media-driven Servergate frenzy are supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.). Sanders fans are littering liberal message boards with a variety of polling references indicating that Mr. Sanders is doing as well as, or even better than, Ms. Clinton in certain head-to-head matchups against leading Republican contenders. This flurry of often cherry-picked polling data comes in response to those who scoff at the notion that a self-proclaimed socialist (like Mr. Sanders) can actually be elected president of the United States.

(A brief aside here, to address the inevitable howls of indignation from Sanders backers that their hero is not a capital-S Socialist but a “democratic socialist,” and that this is different from being a Marxist-Leninist or even a European-style social democrat: Yes, yes, there is a distinction there, but do you really think it is a distinction that most people will get?)

While polling on the presidential horse race is of very limited value this far out from the election, what should be of more interest to us is what the public says about what type of candidate it is willing to support.

At any rate, those who follow politics closely know only too well the perils of paying very much attention to early polling matchups, especially those involving a candidate like Mr. Sanders who hasn’t yet taken a single punch from a single opponent. (More on this point later.) If you have any doubts as to the lack of utility in the relative popularity of presidential candidates 15 months or more before the general election, let’s ask President Michele Bachmann (R) and President Howard Dean (D) how much stock they put in such polling.

While polling on the presidential horse race is of very limited value this far out from the election, what should be of more interest to us is what the public says about what type of candidate it is willing to support.

Gallup, Inc., delved into this topic recently, releasing on June 22nd the results of a poll asking 1,527 voting-age respondents whether they would vote for any of 11 different types of candidates for president: a woman; candidates of black or Hispanic ethnicity; candidates from various religious traditions, including Catholics, Jews, evangelical Christians, Muslims or Mormons, as well as atheists; a gay or lesbian candidate; and a socialist. The survey, which had a margin of error of +/- 3 percent, found that 47 percent would vote for a socialist, 50 percent would not, and 3 percent offered no opinion.

Naturally, how people viewed the results tended to depend on which side of the American ideological divide on which they fell. Liberals, led by media outlets such as the Huffington Post, hailed the results as indicating that nearly half of Americans would vote for a socialist. Conservatives, represented by the Washington Times and other right-leaning media, hailed the results as indicating that Americans would be leery of voting for a socialist. (Liberals might take heed of the truism offered in 2002 by two of their own, James Carville and Paul Begala, who wrote in their book, Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up, that 49 percent in business means you’re rich, but 49 percent in politics means you’re through.)

What is more telling than either partisan view of the poll results is the headline of Gallup’s story announcing those results: “In U.S., Socialist Presidential Candidates Least Appealing.”

That’s right. Of all 11 categories tested by Gallup, the percentage of respondents willing to vote for a socialist not only came in dead last, but far behind atheists (58/40) or Muslims (60/38), the next two rungs upward at the bottom of the ladder in terms of electability. The fact that more respondents were willing to vote for a member of these two highly maligned groups than they were to vote for a socialist hardly bodes well for the Senator from Vermont.

The key question, in such an election, would be whether Sanders would tank the entire Democratic Party, up and down the ballot, along with himself.

Diving more deeply into the numbers, the percentage of voters who expressed a willingness to vote for a socialist also brought up the rear among Republicans, independents AND Democrats. Only 59 percent of Democrats polled indicated they would vote for a socialist, compared to, for example, the 66 percent of Democrats who indicated they would vote for an evangelical Christian. Given the very serious political divide between Democrats and evangelical Christians, the fact that even self-identified Democrats would be more open to an evangelical president than a socialist one should ring a few alarm bells about the viability of Bernie Sanders in a general election. What are the realistic prospects of victory for a Democratic nominee who may win as few as three out of every five Democratic votes? (Think of names like Mondale and McGovern.)

Bernie Sanders may be flying pretty high right now—though, in fairness, he is still losing to Ms. Clinton in national polls by large margins—but much of the public that will vote in November 2016 still does not know very much about him, including the fact that he is a self-proclaimed “Democratic socialist.” Neither Ms. Clinton nor the Republicans are defining him at this point with negative advertising, so he has not yet had any negative publicity. The fact that the Republicans, in particular, are not attacking Mr. Sanders, is a clear “tell” in poker terms. Any Republican strategist reading Gallup’s numbers must be anticipating a Sanders nomination with unmitigated glee.

Given the results of the June 22nd Gallup poll, it is a certainty that Republicans would greet a Sanders nomination with a barrage of ads letting voters know that Mr. Sanders himself has admitted on many occasions that he is a socialist. If Gallup’s numbers are a correct reflection of the electorate’s willingness—or lack thereof—to vote for a socialist, then a 2016 general election featuring Mr. Sanders as the Democratic nominee would present the easiest advertising campaign for Team Red since Michael Dukakis put on that helmet and climbed into a tank.

The key question, in such an election, would be whether Sanders would tank the entire Democratic Party, up and down the ballot, along with himself. With Democrats already controlling only 46 percent of the U.S. Senate, 43 percent of the U.S. House, 36 percent of governorships and 30 percent of all state legislative chambers, it may well be terrifying for Team Blue to ponder whether it can actually go any lower.

Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @ClistonBrown

Doing the Limbo With Bernie: A Sanders Nomination Will Crater Down-Ballot Democrats