DURHAM, N.H. – Is America ready for a socialist president? A solid plurality of New Hampshire Democrats are, unless every poll is radically off target.
Coming off a strong second-place showing in Iowa last week, a win on Tuesday would typically anoint Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as the undisputed front-runner.
But party insiders and pundits will resist that label because of another one that Sanders wears – the label that President Donald Trump relentlessly slams him with and, by extension, the rest of the Democratic field: Democratic socialist.
“Trump’s going to say `socialist, socialist, socialist’ to anyone who’s progressive. I’m sure to him, Franklin Roosevelt was a socialist,” said Andrew Bridger, 72, a retired engineer from Rochester who’s deciding between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “People say ‘socialist’ and they think, Cuba and Russia. Some people are called fascist who aren’t. It’s label-type politics.”
An NBC/Wall St. Journal survey released last week found that 53% of voters hold a negative view of socialism, nearly triple the negative view of capitalism. But the impact on the Democratic primary could be subtle.
A recent Texas Lyceum poll found that more Texas voters predict that Sanders could beat Trump in Texas than former Vice President Joe Biden.
Still, the widespread discomfort with the term among independents and suburbanites, and the policies it describes, make “socialist” a potent epithet for Trump and others to hurl. And it’s top of mind for Democratic voters vacillating between a ballot for their favorite candidate, or one they view as more widely palatable.
That’s a headwind for Sanders, because even some voters who shrug aside the red-baiting and name-calling fret that in a general election, the party would pay a heavy price if Sanders is the nominee.
“Make no mistake, socialism is on the ballot,” former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte told voters in Portsmouth on Monday afternoon, warming up a crowd for Ivanka Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. “Can you imagine the judges that Bernie Sanders would appoint to the bench? It’s quite frightening.”
At a rally in Manchester on Monday night, Trump slipped in a similar attack, as usual: “We are going to defeat the radical socialist Democrats,” he declared.
An hour away at nearly the same time, Sanders was headlining an election eve rally at the University of New Hampshire in Durham featuring the second most prominent leftist in Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and plenty of class-conscious rhetoric.
“Are you ready for a political revolution, New Hampshire?” she asked as some 6,000 or more supporters roared approval.
“Bernie has taught us to say, I’m done with these crumbs. I want the whole pie,” Cynthia Nixon, the Sex and the City actress who ran for New York governor two years ago.
Many of Sanders’ rivals for the nomination distance themselves, even as they vow to support the nominee, whoever it is.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who edged past Sanders in Iowa, is warning New Hampshire voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary against choosing between “revolution and the status quo,” a jab at Sanders and Biden.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar boasted after Friday night’s debate that she was the only candidate who raised a hand when a moderator asked who had a problem with a socialist becoming the nominee.
“Bernie’s labeled himself — not me — a democratic socialist,” Biden said in that debate, arguing that nominating Sanders would make it impossible for Democrats to win control of the Senate. “That’s the label that the president’s going to lay on everyone running with Bernie if he’s a nominee.”
But Sanders’ support runs deep.
Volunteers have poured into New Hampshire from around the country, an army big enough to knock on the doors of one in five homes statewide on Saturday alone. Many are unabashed leftists, willing to embrace labels most Democrats carefully avoid.
Christopher Williams, 30, a resident of Pocatello, Idaho, who works at a music store and on a friend’s organic farm, wore a bright red “Democratic Socialists for Bernie” T-shirt at the UNH rally.
He took a few weeks off work to volunteer for Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Just trying to put it all in for the early states,” Williams said.
He’s not unaware that “socialism” scares people. He just doesn’t think it should.
“We have historically battled socialism,” he said, but socialist enemies have always been authoritarian, and that’s not Sanders’ goal at all.
“If you break it down, what is democratic socialism?” Williams said. “To me, it’s common sense. We all can decide what works for all of us. It literally sounds like the most American thing of any idea. It’s kind of ironic that it’s such a polarizing term.”
Tania Singh, 30 an executive board member of the California Democratic Party and a union organizer from Riverside, said friends and relatives in India are watching the movement closely.
“There’s a left in India that is fighting the fascist Modi government, and they look to us, their comrades in America, they look to Bernie, and they’re all rooting for him — whether they’re leftists in Australia, in Europe, in India, everywhere. They’re looking to Bernie and our movement to give them all a frickin global win,” she said at a Sanders event near downtown Manchester.
She’s so ardent about Sanders that her answer on the question of his advanced age, 78, and recent heart attack is that “two years of Bernie in office would be better than four years of [effing] Buttigieg…. My generation, we need a win.”
New Hampshire Democrats such as Kathleen Kelley, 49, an insurance broker in Manchester, are fond of Sanders and his demands for economic justice and universal health care.
“I love Bernie. I love what he talks about. I’m not afraid of Bernie,” she said. “Nobody thought Trump could win four years ago. Republicans shrugged him off as some Hollywood type who would get no traction and had no chance… I don’t think that there’s ever a nobody-can-win scenario.
In Iowa, she noted, the centrists –Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Biden – collected more votes combined than Sanders and his nearest ideological competitor, Warren. But she’s confident that resistance would fall away if the choice narrows to Sanders and Trump.
“People are not going to stay home in this general election. The motivation is all around us because of Trump,” she said.
Like Sanders, much of Warren’s rhetoric and many of her policies invite attack from the right as socialism, redistribution of wealth and class division.
She vows to impose an annual tax of 2% on wealth over $50 million. Homeowners already pay a wealth tax of sorts, she said while stumping Monday in Rochester, except that “for the bazillionaires, the property tax ought to include the real estate, and the stock portfolio, the diamonds, the Rembrandts and the yacht.”
Macy Gotthardt, 72, a retired eighth grade science teacher who has turned her home in Wolfboro into a staging site for the Warren campaign, called her smart, compassionate and persistent.
“Socialism is a word that’s been abused,” she said. “She’s for regulated capitalism, like things were in the 50s. Tax rates were higher. We had good public services, good infrastructure.”
If that’s socialism, she said, she’ll take it.
Many Democrats are concerned about Sanders dragging down the party in November.
Richard Bronfman, 66, a podiatrist from Little Rock, Ark., and one of many political tourists filling seats at campaign events this month in order to see candidates they’ll never see back home, wore a button that read “Democrat for president.”
“I’m ABT – anybody but Trump,” he said.
But he added, “I’m not a big fan of Bernie. Bernie’s a little too left wing…. I don’t think he could win.” Still, Bronfman would max out on donations to Sanders if he does snag the nomination.
Another tourist, Eileen Saffer, 60, a gun violence prevention advocate from Silicon Valley, is no fan either, but she’s less pessimistic about Democrats’ chances if he’s the nominee.
“It’s not game over,” she said. “His core followers will stand up.”
In Northern California, she said, “I see the support. I see the depth of it.”