Polls continue to overstate the popularity of Bernie Sanders. Since the campaign’s inception, neither Hillary Clinton nor the Republicans have seriously attacked him. The former First Lady has handled him with kid gloves because she hopes to win over his supporters, but the GOP had laid off the Senator because they regard him as a joke.
By calling himself a socialist, Sanders long ago forfeited any prospect of a general election win. No label is more toxic to the electorate. Most Americans say they would vote for a candidate of any color, sexual orientation or religion — even a Muslim. But 50% would refuse to support even a well-qualified socialist candidate.
Hostility to socialism varies by age, but those variations would only hurt Sanders in a general election.
Although 69% of people under 30 say they would be willing to vote for a socialist, the brutal fact is that most young people do not vote. Typically, only 30–40% of them bother to turn out for a presidential election. Barack Obama did a little better in 2008, but the youth vote still fell short of 50% participation; in the end, young people comprised less than 20% of the total electorate.
About 55% of people in their 30s and 40s vote in presidential elections, and 50% of them say would vote for a socialist. So, Sanders could break even with Generation X, a relatively puny cohort.
Unfortunately for the Senator, most voters are 50 and older, and they overwhelmingly dislike socialism. In presidential elections, turnout among the middle-aged and elderly averages a robust 60–70%. Fully two-thirds of older voters say they would reject a socialist candidate.
The bottom line: Being a socialist means that Sanders would be lucky to win more than 40% of the popular vote.
In fact, the Senator would probably do even worse. The Republicans could discredit him easily enough just by showing footage of Sanders calling himself a socialist, but they would not stop there.
They would also attack him on religious grounds — not because he is Jewish, but because the Senator is, as he puts it, “not particularly religious.”
Nearly all Americans — 88% — claim they would vote for a Jewish presidential candidate. Just 8% report any reluctance to put one of the Chosen People in the White House.
However, most Americans — 51% — say they would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God. Though a large minority — 47% — would support a nonbelieving presidential aspirant, you normally need a majority to win an election.
Sanders says he is “proud to be Jewish,” but for him, that is clearly more of a cultural identity than a matter of belief. Though raised in the faith, the Senator is no longer observant. He describes himself as “not actively involved with organized religion.”
In recent months, Sanders has laid claim to a vague spirituality that is not specifically Jewish: “I think it is not a good thing to believe as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people … and this is not Judaism, this is what Pope Francis is talking about, that we can’t just worship billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.”
God does not appear to figure in his belief system: “I would not be running for president of the United States, if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings…. My spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”
Tolerant liberals may find much to like and respect in the Senator’s faith.
However, more traditional believers would probably classify Sanders as irreligious, agnostic or atheist. That means most Americans would therefore consider him unfit for the presidency.
Many of those religiously motivated voters are Republicans who would not have supported the Senator, anyway.
But 36% of Democrats say they would refuse to vote for a nonbeliever. This will deepen the candidate’s struggle to earn the support of African Americans and Hispanics — two core party constituencies with high rates of religious belief. It is hard to see how Sanders would generate the massive minority turnout Democrats need to win the White House.
Sanders is supposed to run strong among independent voters, but 39% of them would refuse to vote for an atheist.
The Senator’s current poll numbers are falsely inflated because many voters are not yet aware of his unconventional religious beliefs: 40% of Americans erroneously view Sanders as very or somewhat religious.
In a general election, the GOP would move swiftly to hammer the electorate with blunt reminders that Sanders is not just a socialist, but a godless socialist.
See also: Why Sanders would lose to Trump