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During his decades in public office, Bernie Sanders has characterized himself as both a “socialist” and a “Democratic socialist,” terms that don’t necessarily mean the same thing.
Sanders and Hillary Clinton are in a close primary race in New Hampshire. And Sanders could be losing traction with potential supporters who worry about the way he describes himself.
“I think because Bernie is a self-styled socialist, that word is a turn off for way too many voters who don’t think about what he really means,” said Elaine Schmottlach, of Raymond, New Hampshire.
Sanders is frequently asked to defend his proclaimed ideology — and he’s increasingly trying to emphasize that he’s a "Democratic socialist."
During the recent CNN debate, Anderson Cooper asked Sanders: “How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?”
Sanders responded: “We’re going to win, because first we’re going to explain what Democratic socialism is."
Sanders says he’ll make a speech on the subject soon, although he has yet to add that to his schedule.
But Samuel Goldman, a conservative writer who directs George Washington University’s Politics and Values Program, said that for older voters in particular, socialism can call up memories of Cold War-era states that relied on central command of the economy and tight controls on social behavior too: Places such as the Soviet Union and its satellites, or Maoist China.
“And these were all quite awful places, and they conclude from that association that socialism is not a good idea,” he said.
But he added that those born after the fall of the Soviet Union are more likely to hold a different view.
“Younger people, at least anecdotally, seem to associate the word socialism or Democratic socialism with the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and those are much more appealing examples of societies from which the United States might learn,“ he said.
A new WBUR poll of likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire bears Goldman out.
The poll, conducted by MassINC Polling, found that, overall, just over half the respondents held a positive view of socialism. Younger respondents were more likely to do so, too.
But then the pollsters delved into some nuances, by splitting the poll’s 400 respondents into two groups.
One group was asked whether a “socialist president” would be acceptable, and about half said that was acceptable, half not. The other group was asked about a “Democratic socialist president.” The acceptability rating climbed to more than 60 percent.
Poll participant Susan Walters, of Londonderry, said Sanders would be wise to avoid old fears of Soviet-era enemies and stick to the term “Democratic socialism.”
“Because I’m 66 years old, and I’ve lived through cold wars, etcetera,” she said. “I think if you put the 'Democratic' in front of it, you’re still talking about one of the basic two parties we’ve had in our country for a century or so, and I just think it’s more palatable for people.”
Other voters, like Elaine Schmottlach, of Raymond, are not worried about making a distinction between socialism and Democratic socialism.
“Socialism is the library where I work,” she said. “And the police and the fire departments. He’s named all those things. That’s part of socialism. [Sanders] doesn’t think we should have nationalization of industry. He’s a practical guy — he just needs to get the message out there more clearly.”
Even so, Schmottlach said she’ll vote for Clinton in the primary, partly because no matter the niceties, Sanders would suffer for the socialist label come the general election. And GOP front-runner Donald Trump is already trying to hang that label around Sanders' neck.
“You know what? I call him a socialist-slash-communist,” Trump told a rally the day after the Democratic debate, drawing big cheers.
But George Washington University’s Samuel Goldman suggests an irony behind the cheers: many of the safety-net systems Sanders defends are also favorites of so-called “disaffected” voters who support Trump.
“The numbers I’ve seen suggest that Trump supporters feel very favorably toward Social Security; they feel very favorably toward Medicare,” he said. “They might not like the word, but there’s maybe less difference between them and some of the people expressing favorable attitudes toward socialism than they realize.”
But here’s another potentially loaded term Sanders throws around that he might want to be ginger with: “revolution.”
While almost two-thirds of the Democratic primary voters in the WBUR poll said the U.S. system needs “major change,” only 15 percent said they want a “revolution.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified the number of respondents holding a positive view of socialism. The poll found that just over half the respondents held a positive view of socialism. We regret the error.
This segment aired on October 22, 2015.
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