But there is one matchup in which Trump actually leads: When voters have to choose between him and a candidate they believe is a “socialist,” Trump led 49 percent to 43 percent.
This is obviously a hypothetical exercise. The idea that the Democratic nominee will call themselves a socialist is far-fetched (even Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont prefers to be called a “democratic socialist"). And just because Trump argues that his opponent is a socialist doesn’t mean they will be viewed by everyone — or even most people — accordingly.
But the finding does hint at how central this question could be to Trump’s reelection hopes. Given Trump’s long-standing unpopularity, a big question has always been whether he will be able to take the eventual Democratic nominee and drag them down to his level. He showed he could do it in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, who ended the campaign as unpopular as Trump was, but it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to do it again.
Trump also has some material to work with. The Democratic candidates in the first debate two weeks ago went further to the left on issues such as health care and immigration than in any modern Democratic primary. Many of them embraced single-payer health care, and some even said they would eliminate private health insurance. Many said they would decriminalize crossing the border without documentation, making it a civil matter. And many said they would support health-care coverage for undocumented immigrants, which California only recently became the first state to experiment with.
Not all of these can credibly be called “socialism,” the definition of which is the government controlling the means of production and the dissemination and trade of goods. That’s a distinction that the media would do well to reinforce regularly.
But in many ways, the term has come to define creating a massive role for government in American life — via entitlement programs and the like. Even some Democratic candidates are suggesting their opponents are embracing socialism. And to the extent that’s how people understand the term, that’s the context in which they are likely answering poll questions such as this.
Plenty have noted that the “socialist” line of attack is hardly new; Republicans have used it in one form or another basically since the Great Depression. But using a talking point and actually making people believe it are two separate things. And this poll shows that while Trump trails among independents in every matchup, he leads a candidate viewed as a “socialist” among independents by eight percentage points, 50-42.
At least thus far, Democrats seem more interested in winning their party’s nomination than they are wary of reinforcing the perception that their party is drifting toward the sword. Or perhaps they think that such a strategy could reap benefits by turning out the liberal base in huge numbers.
This one poll, though, shows the potential danger that word carries. It turns a race in which Trump trails Biden by 10 into one he wins by six. Expect Trump to use the word early and often.