The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Could a socialist actually be elected president?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says no to more questions as he returns to the Senate after speaking to the media on April 30 about his decision to run for president. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Last week, I posited that electability will be the Achilles' heels of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Voters don't care about it in August 2015 — hence The Donald and The Bern are rising in the polls — but they will when the race actually comes into focus and the stakes become clear. The 2012 election was a case in point.

While making that case, I wrote this:

... Are Republicans who are terrified of another Clinton administration really going to nominate a candidate who is viewed unfavorably by two-thirds of the electorate, as Trump is? Are Democrats going to nominate a socialist with whom they might agree more than [Hillary] Clinton but who, well, is a SOCIALIST.

Over the weekend, a Fix reader took issue with the latter part of this. He noted that polls show a majority of Democrats are actually just fine with voting for a socialist.

Ben Simpson brings up a valid point — and it's actually one that we've covered on this blog before.

While the word "socialist" carries with it negative connotations for many Americans, that's not the case for a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters. While the Gallup poll he cited shows 59 percent of Democratic voters would be okay with voting for a socialist, another recent poll showed that 52 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of socialism.

[Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist. 52 percent of Democrats are OK with that.]

So, clearly, a majority of Democrats are okay with Sanders's self-described ideology.

But it's also true that a very large chunk — as many as 4 or 5 in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters — are not okay with it. In fact, they are more okay with voting for a Muslim (73 percent), an atheist (64 percent) or an evangelical Christian (66 percent). "Socialist" was the least-acceptable term that Gallup tested.

When you loop in all independents and Republicans, half of Americans say they would not vote for a socialist candidate. Just 47 percent say they might.

Needless to say, trying to win a presidential election when 50 percent of voters are off-limits to you would be very difficult. That said, we live in polarizing times, and there's a case to be made that Sanders could pull just enough votes to win.

He could also, I would point out, move to change people's perceptions of socialism altogether — help it go more mainstream. That is also completely plausible, especially since we haven't had much of a conversation about socialism in this country for a very long time.

But the fact that Sanders's political ideology is a nonstarter for even so many Democrats suggests pretty strongly that he can't win the presidency. I wouldn't predict that outright — this election cycle has belied political predictions, and so we're all a little gun-shy — but the numbers above suggest that we're more likely to see a gay president or a Muslim president than a socialist one.

And when it comes to electability, recent history shows that voters are actually pretty savvy. In fact, the vast, vast majority of Democratic voters (78 percent) already believe that Clinton is more electable than Sanders. Even many Sanders supporters concede this.

So while it's within the realm of possibility that Sanders or another socialist could be elected president, it seems unlikely that Democrats would allow us to find out — by actually nominating one.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a White House contender in 2016, is known for his stances on budget issues and war. Here are his takes on Obamacare, Social Security and more. (Video: Julie Percha/The Washington Post)