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Opinion Is it really a risk for Democrats to nominate a socialist?

Bernie Sanders greets supporters in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday after winning the New Hampshire primary. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

With Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in a strong position as the Democratic presidential nominating contest moves along, people are asking whether it would really be possible for a socialist to win the presidency. It’s an interesting question, and the answer might not be as obvious as you think.

As a new Gallup poll shows, when you ask people the question in the abstract — would you vote for an otherwise qualified socialist for president? — only 45 percent say they would, lower than the figures for an atheist (60 percent), a Muslim (66 percent) or a gay person (78 percent).

The simple way to look at this is that Democrats are doomed if Sanders is their nominee. But that would be wrong.

Let me first say that I’m not trying to offer a brief for Sanders’s candidacy or ideological outlook. There are some things he proposes that I think are great, and others I’m not so hot on. I think his theory of governing — that he can mobilize a popular movement that will intimidate congressional Republicans into voting for left-leaning bills they despise — is preposterous.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t win because he calls himself a socialist.

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Let’s think first about this poll. There’s one critical way that “socialist” differs from all the other items on Gallup’s list: It’s an ideological choice, not a demographic characteristic. Which means that if you’re a Republican, you could imagine a nominee of your party who’s an atheist or a woman or black. But no Republican who has the faintest idea of what socialism is will tell a pollster that they’d vote for a socialist (actually, 17 percent did). Meaning a large proportion of the population will inevitably say no.

But there’s a larger question of whether, say, independent voters would consider voting for a socialist. In that poll, 76 percent of independents said they would.

The argument that Sanders can’t win because he calls himself a socialist (even though he’s actually more of a European-style social democrat, which is different) falls into the fundamental trap of electability thinking. That trap is the assumption that there are electable and unelectable types of candidates based on things like demographics, ideology or experience, and we just have to determine which type a given candidate is and then we’ll know if they’re electable.

This belief is remarkably persistent despite the fact that it’s disproved in literally every election. Candidates like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, John McCain and John Kerry were seen as extremely electable, while there were powerful reasons Donald Trump, Barack Obama and (to a lesser extent) George W. Bush should not have been electable.

In the end it was the skills, decisions and timing of each of those candidates as individuals, not as a collection of characteristics, that determined whether they won or lost. Types of candidates do not run in elections; individual candidates do. Perhaps we never talk about electability in that way because it’s harder to define.

There is no doubt that if Sanders were the Democratic nominee, President Trump would cry “Socialism!” as often as possible. But the fact that he’ll say it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be persuasive to anyone other than those who would never vote for a Democrat in the first place.

Given that the Cold War ended 30 years ago, the specter of socialism doesn’t inspire the fear and loathing it once did. For most Americans, “socialism” is most easily translated as “what Republicans call any proposal made by Democrats.” They use the word to describe everything from raising taxes on the wealthy to increasing the minimum wage to the Affordable Care Act. This relentless insistence that anything the GOP doesn’t like is socialism has diluted the power of the word to do much damage.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you took a poll asking Americans who they think of when they hear the word socialist and the most common answer was not Fidel Castro or Joseph Stalin but, well, Bernie Sanders. Who isn’t quite as terrifying.

A more subtle and persuasive argument would be that it isn’t socialism as an abstract idea from which voters will supposedly recoil that is Sanders’s problem, but the fact that he’s an ideological outlier, farther to the left than anyone Democrats have nominated in recent history.

Here too, though, I think there’s plenty of uncertainty.

A number of studies have shown that candidates suffer for ideological extremism — but they’ve all examined down-ballot races that have different dynamics than presidential campaigns. Growing polarization and negative partisanship would help a candidate like Sanders just as they helped Trump; there might be some moderate Democrats who aren’t too comfortable with socialism as a philosophy, but faced with a choice between a socialist and Trump, they’d stick with their party.

But the most compelling answer to the question of whether a socialist can be elected president is that we just don’t know. We haven’t had a nominee like Sanders before, and prior examples of ideological outliers (say, George McGovern) were so long ago and in partisan environments that were so radically different from today’s that they can’t tell us anything about what would happen.

So is it a risk to nominate a socialist? Sure. But there are risks associated with every potential nominee. Unfortunately, we usually don’t fully understand what those risks were until it’s too late.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Bernie Sanders is the candidate to beat. Will it last?

Paul Waldman: Is it really a risk for Democrats to nominate a socialist?

George F. Will: It’s looking like Democrats might have a chance to beat Trump after all

David Byler: Just how big was Klobuchar’s surge?

Megan McArdle: The theories that collapsed in New Hampshire

Charles Lane: 14 questions for Bernie Sanders