Sanders Is Winning Because He's Popular

Voters like the senator from Vermont—it’s socialism that makes them nervous.

Nam Y. Huh / AP

Bernie Sanders’s 2020 slogan is “Not me. Us.” The sentiment is uplifting, and it’s good politics—the kind of phrase that makes voters feel as if they’re part of a movement rather than a cult of personality.

It’s also probably wrong.

Sanders’s narrow win Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary cements his status as the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race. It will inspire many proclamations that a socialist takeover of the United States is nigh. Whether this is deemed a good or bad thing will depend on who’s declaring it. Sanders’s hardest-core backers—young, far-left voters, especially white and in cities—will view it as a new dawn. The senator himself will probably read it the same way. The Trump campaign may welcome it, too, seeing a chance to cast the Democratic Party as a bunch of pinkos.

Moderates in both the Democratic and Republican parties will react with horror and fear. In a weird moment of Dwight Macdonald cosplay after the February 7 Democratic debate, the center-left MSNBC shouter Chris Matthews implied that Sanders’s brand of socialism somehow raised the specter of executions (including Matthews’s own) in Central Park.

But Sanders’s narrow victory in New Hampshire, following an effective tie in Iowa with Pete Buttigieg, is much more a victory for Bernie Sanders than for socialism. For all the focus on “us,” voters seem to be gravitating more to Sanders the candidate than to his platform.

As an ideologue, Sanders faces challenges. Though he has modulated his tone since his earliest political excursions—more Franklin D. Roosevelt and less Rosa Luxemburg, as my colleague Franklin Foer pithily put it—Sanders’s politics, which he calls democratic socialism, are not yet all that popular. There is no question that the Democratic Party has moved left in recent years, and as I have reported, that shift is actually more pronounced among voters than it is among the party’s candidates, notwithstanding highly visible officeholders such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Overall, however, American views on socialism remain mixed to negative. Democrats, especially young ones, are growing more favorable toward socialism—a term that’s rather vague in most polls. But among Americans at large, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that a slight majority (53 percent) held a negative view of socialism, versus 19 percent whose views were positive. (Capitalism polls much better, 52 percent for and 18 percent against.) And in a second poll, 53 percent of respondents told Gallup they would not vote for a socialist for president.

Even within the Democratic Party, though, views of socialism as a concept may be very different from opinions on specific policies. Consider Medicare for All, Sanders’s signature proposal. People tend to like the idea when they’re simply asked about that name. Tell them it means they’ll lose their private insurance and they start to soften. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris each initially embraced Sanders’s Medicare for All, but backed away when they started to see it as a political liability. Now Harris is out of the race, and Warren has fallen out of the top tier.

Other ideas may enjoy widespread approval, but face different hurdles. Warren has been asked tough questions about her proposal for a wealth tax. The idea is extremely popular, but many legal scholars believe her plan wouldn’t pass muster in court. Sanders, too, wants a wealth tax, and his is even bigger. It’s equally constitutionally dubious, but he hasn’t faced the same sort of doubts. Partly that’s because the press has been slow to take Sanders seriously as a candidate.

But that split in coverage probably also reflects what attracts voters to Sanders. Warren has grounded her appeal in wonkiness and know-how, making questions about the viability of specific plans make-or-break. Sanders’s appeal is more personal.

As the runner-up in the 2016 Democratic race, he entered the 2020 contest with strong name recognition, on a tier with only Biden. According to Morning Consult, he also has the highest favorability of all the Democratic contenders. Core to his personal appeal is authenticity. Politicians are famous for changing their views based on what is popular, a charge that’s especially potent against Biden. Sanders has been saying the same things, in largely the same fashion, for decades. Whatever you think of these ideas, they are sincerely held.

Yes, Sanders can (by his own admission) come off as a crank, but his crankiness matches the times. Lots of Democrats are angry about the state of the country. Sanders hates all the right things and rails against them, and it’s this anger, more than the specifics of his solutions, that has proved essential to his appeal. Warren wants technocratic, if sweeping, changes to the system. Sanders is faster to wish a pox on it.

He has also benefited from a strong campaign. Like many first-time presidential candidates, Sanders led an often chaotic and error-prone effort in 2016. Like all the best second-time candidates, he has learned from those mistakes. He built a large organization in 2016, maintained it between elections, and brought that into this race. The campaign has done a good job of working to fix problems that became clear in 2016, most of all Sanders’s weakness with nonwhite voters.

The fruits of that effort are now appearing. As The New York Times notes, Sanders’s recent surge in polls is largely due to an influx of support from black and Latino voters. (Biden still leads by a wide margin among African Americans overall.) Sanders faces an uphill battle here, because minority voters are more likely to identify as moderates, but nonwhites said in a recent CNN poll that Sanders understands their problems better than Biden—another sign of personal, rather than policy-specific, appeal.

Matt Yglesias flags a survey from Data for Progress that shows Sanders leading President Donald Trump in head-to-head polls, even when voters are cued with a mention of Sanders’s socialism. It doesn’t make much difference—the Vermonter leads either way. Yglesias theorizes that Trump’s attempts at red-scaring aren’t working. That’s possible, but it’s also possible that the “socialist” tag simply doesn’t hurt Sanders, because voters like him personally.

Personal appeal also explains why Sanders has flourished, including in places like Iowa, while other self-described socialists have not. When Democrats nominated left-wing candidates for congressional districts in Republican territory, those candidates flopped, while more moderate ones were more likely to succeed.

This is not to say that some of Sanders’s policies are not popular—both with Democrats and with the broader population. But as Sanders himself has noted, this is less a sign of incipient revolution than it is of the vagueness of the socialist label and the existing, if underappreciated, leftist tendencies already present in American society.

“In many respects we have a socialist society today, we have a huge budget, puts money into all areas,” Sanders said on Fox News Sunday this weekend. “Now, Donald Trump, before he was president, as a private businessperson, he received $800 million in tax breaks and subsidies to build luxury housing in New York … The difference between my socialism and Trump’s socialism is, I believe the government should help working families, not billionaires. So I believe that health care is a human right. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour.”

The idea that Sanders’s popularity is driven by, well, his popularity, rather than a sudden leftward shift, rebukes many of the narratives about him. Lefties young (like Sanders’s base) and old (like himself) should be careful of overinterpreting his electoral success in this primary. Support for socialism is growing, but anyone other than Sanders would likely struggle to match his results.

Much the same might be said of the president whom Sanders is running to unseat; he is personally popular among Republican voters, but has failed to sweep into office a wave of ideologically similar allies. Trump’s overhaul of Republican Party positions, however, from free trade to foreign affairs, shows why it’s also unwise to write off Sanders’s victories as ephemeral. Once elected, a president can have an enormous impact. Candidates often drive changes in ideology more effectively than changing ideologies boost candidates.