The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders just might be the most popular politician in America

Bernie Sanders (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

Back when Bernie Sanders was first catching fire in the Democratic presidential primary, a question followed him: Could a socialist actually be elected president of the United States?

The term, after all, carried with it negative connotations for many Americans. And fully half of Americans, including many Democrats, said they could not vote for one — a higher number than said they couldn't vote for a Muslim or an atheist. It was incumbent upon Sanders, I argued, to change how people felt about the term.

Well, judging by how people feel about Sanders today, he appears to have done it. Recent polling, in fact, shows Sanders might actually be the most popular national politician in the United States right now.

While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump register as the most unpopular presidential nominees ever, there remains a real fondness for the guy Clinton beat in the primary. A Fox News poll last month showed Sanders's 60 percent favorable rating was nearly twice as high as his 34 percent unfavorable rating. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll around the same time showed 51 percent liked Sanders and just 29 percent disliked him. CNN a few weeks prior pegged the split at 59/35.

Those numbers make Sanders not only more popular than Trump and Clinton but also more popular than a resurgent President Obama. A new Internet-based YouGov poll has Sanders more popular than the president's very popular wife, Michelle Obama. Vice President Biden and other national figures such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also come up short. So does former president Bill Clinton, who has seen his own numbers dip alongside his wife's.

These numbers come with a large caveat: Sanders is not running for president anymore, and he's generally been pretty quiet since ending his campaign. And if there's a recipe for making Americans like a politician these days, it's for that politician to fade into the background. Obama, for one, seems to have benefited politically from having the spotlight on his would-be successors rather than himself.

It is also true that Clinton's campaign never really launched a sustained line of attack on Sanders. And given he's not the Democratic nominee, there's been no organized offensive focused on his avowed socialism; in fact, Trump has tended to refer to him positively, praising his message on trade and saying that Sanders had been cheated during the primary process. Sanders's socialism has been part of the coverage, certainly, but not a major theme of the campaign.

But it was not that long ago that Sanders was still a candidate, pushing the kind of socialist — Sanders prefers the term "democratic socialist" — policies that many Americans were supposed to be so afraid of. Single-payer health care, free college, etc. And the label followed him everywhere. Yet, here we are today, with a strong majority of Americans saying they like the guy.

Republicans, of course, aren't ready to let go of the idea that associating with a socialist can help them turn Democrats into pariahs. Over the weekend, they attacked Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty for appearing alongside Sanders. "Katie McGinty: Socialist Sympathizer," read the release from the Republican America Rising PAC. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) released a statement declaring, "Bernie Sanders is an honest-to-goodness, self-described socialist and today, Katie McGinty is showing support for Sanders' brand of far-left extremism."

America Rising PAC also sought to attach socialism to other candidates, blaring the headline "Socialist Endorses Senate Candidates" when Sanders endorsed McGinty and fellow Senate candidates New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, former Ohio governor Ted Strickland and former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto.

It's a line of attack that isn't surprising. But given Sanders's current popularity, you have to wonder if it actually moves the needle — or if it might even backfire.