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New Poll Holds Some Surprises on Demographics and Politics in U.S.

Earlier this month I blogged about a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found that only 19 percent of registered voters in the U.S. have a positive view of socialism. I argued that even that was probably overstating socialism’s popularity, given the high approval for things like “free enterprise” and small business. This week Gallup has released a new poll about what kind of people Americans would be willing to support for president, and “socialist” has come up as the least popular type.  

The characteristics Gallup asked about are a little apples-and-oranges conceptually, since most of the others are inalienable characteristics like race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but the results still reinforce that less than half of Americans would even consider voting for a socialist for president. And as Susan Milligan points out at USnews.com, the number of Americans who would consider a socialist candidate has actually declined slightly in recent years—47 percent said they would consider voting for such a candidate in 2015 but only 45 percent say so now in 2020. That’s likely within the margin of error, but it’s at least evidence that we’re not seeing a groundswell of support, as some have claimed.

Of course, the results are split rather unevenly between the major parties. Only 17 percent of Republicans tell Gallup they would vote for a socialist, but 76 percent of Democrats say they would. Democrats, in fact, are one point less likely to vote for someone under the age of 40 than they are for a socialist. We should take these reported proclivities with a grain of salt, however. Only 66 percent of Democrats say they would vote for someone over 70, but Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, and Elizabeth Warren are all 70 or over. If one of them becomes the Democratic nominee, it’s difficult to image 34 percent of Democrats writing in someone else instead.

One of the most interesting results is the continued importance of religious faith in American politics. In October 2019 the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life released a report with the headline “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” But while formal affiliations with specific dominations are on the decline, the importance of religious faith among our elected leaders is still strong. Only 41 percent of Republicans would consider voting for an atheist, while even among Democrats, only 69 percent would consider such a vote. The fact that almost a third of Democrats would refuse to even consider an atheist candidate surprised me.

This is especially interesting given the work of people like Tim Carney (in particular in his book Alienated America), who has suggested that a lack of religious faith and formation in many America communities played a significant role in the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Those Americans who feel that their communities have been either victimized or left behind by our current economic and political system—and are not living in a vibrant faith community—are far more likely, I’d wager, to support nationalist and populist anti-corporate policies. The opinions of American voters about faith and family could end up being just as important over the next few years as their verdicts on capitalism and socialism per se.