WASHINGTON — President Trump delivered a familiar warning at his rally on Tuesday night, telling supporters that his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., and his allies would turn America into a socialist state if given the chance.
“Biden has made a corrupt bargain in exchange for his party’s nomination,” Mr. Trump said. “He has handed control to the socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists like his vice-presidential candidate.”
The lines were a riff on one of Mr. Trump’s favorite attacks on Mr. Biden — and an illustration of its limits. Despite repeated efforts on Twitter, on a debate stage and in speeches, Mr. Trump has failed to convince voters that Mr. Biden is a socialist.
In the closing days of his campaign, he has shifted to telling voters that Mr. Biden is instead a pawn of socialists and that his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, is “a communist.” In an address to several civic economic clubs from the Rose Garden on Wednesday, Mr. Trump called the election “a choice between a socialist nightmare and the American dream.”
A wide range of polls, including some conducted for nonpartisan media outlets and for conservative and liberal interest groups, shows that Mr. Trump has so far been unsuccessful in lashing Mr. Biden to policy proposals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and a federal tax on the net worth of high-wealth Americans, all of which Democratic voters and leaders have increasingly embraced in recent years, but which Mr. Biden has stopped short of adopting in his platform.
Evidence also suggests the socialist label does not necessarily carry as much negative weight as Mr. Trump assumed. When pollsters ask Mr. Biden’s critics to name their concerns about him, “socialism” ranks low on the list.
“It’s a word that people bring up more now. It doesn’t mean that it has an impact,” said Margie Omero, a principal at the Democratic polling firm GBAO, which has polled for progressive groups this year but is not working for Mr. Biden’s campaign. “If Trump’s attacks worked, he would be doing better. But he’s not.”
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Still, Mr. Trump and his campaign appear to see the issue as a potential winner, particularly among Latino voters who came to the United States from Latin American countries that were governed by socialist or communist rulers. Mr. Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. led a “Fighters Against Socialism” bus tour in Florida last weekend.
Mr. Biden has continued to rebut the attacks on the campaign trail, including in Florida. “There’s not one single syllable that I’ve ever said that could lead you to believe that I was a socialist or a communist,” Mr. Biden said in a recent campaign stop there.
Pollsters and analysts across the political spectrum say there are several reasons Mr. Trump’s attacks have failed to dent Mr. Biden’s popularity, which has grown among voters in recent months in spite of the “socialism” barrage. Some are about Mr. Biden: Democrats, in particular, say he has built a longtime brand as a moderate, bolstered by his refusal to endorse many of the most liberal economic policy plans of his Democratic rivals in the primaries.
Some are about Mr. Trump, who even some conservatives say has been unfocused in his attacks and poorly positioned to define Mr. Biden on policy terms — because of Mr. Trump’s history of making his political attacks personal.
Some of it appears to also be about the “socialist” policies themselves. Despite months of attempts by the Trump administration, Republican lawmakers and conservative advocacy groups to forecast a descent into a Stalin-like regime of stringent government controls on business and limits on personal freedom if Democrats win, many of the plans favored by the most liberal wing of Democratic leaders remain popular with wide groups of voters, polling shows.
A new poll for The New York Times by the online research firm SurveyMonkey reveals the durability of many of those proposals in the face of repeated criticism from the right. Nearly three in five respondents say they support “a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare for All, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.” That level of support is essentially unchanged from polling the firm conducted in July 2019, and it includes backing from more than two-thirds of independent voters.
A slightly higher share of respondents supports the government providing free tuition to any American who attends a two- or four-year college or university, including more than 7 in 10 independent voters, the poll shows.
Support for those programs appears to grow from a desire by many voters for the government to move more aggressively to curb America’s economic inequalities.Three-fifths of Americans support efforts by the government to reduce the economic gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans. Just under three in five support efforts to reduce the gap between Black and white Americans.
A supermajority — two-thirds of respondents, including a solid majority of Republicans — supports a 2 percent tax on households whose total net worth, including stocks and real estate, exceeds $50 million. Support for such a proposal, which was a plank in Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Democratic nomination, has increased from where it was a year ago.
“Taxes on the rich is an objectively popular policy,” said Sean McElwee, executive director of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank that has polled extensively on support for liberal policy plans. “Over the long term, the wind is in the sails of progressives, in terms of demand from the public.”
Mr. Trump and his party have tried to sow concern about socialism for several years. In the fall of 2018, as midterm elections approached, Mr. Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisers produced a 72-page report warning of the dangers of socialist policies to the American economy. The White House promoted it in a news release with the headline, “Congressional Democrats Want to Take Money From Hardworking Americans to Fund Failed Socialist Policies.”
In the abstract, the messaging would appear to fit with Americans’ views about economic policy. Polls show a significant majority of Americans approve of “capitalism” and disapprove of “socialism.” But there are movements toward “socialism” in subgroups of the country. Majorities of young voters, and Democrats overall, have a favorable view of the concept.
Some of the split comes from disagreements over how to define the term. Americans who favor socialism tend to associate it with Scandinavian countries like Finland or Denmark, whose economic and social welfare systems are more commonly referred to as the “Nordic model,” the Pew Research Center has found. Its opponents tend to associate it with Venezuela.
That range of definitions has allowed Republicans to lump a growing number of policies favored by liberal groups under the “socialism” banner. In a recent attack, Mr. Trump’s first example of Ms. Harris’s so-called “communist” views was her position on immigration policy, accusing her of wanting to “open up the borders” of the United States.
“In my district, I hear a lot of fear about the dramatic turn the Democratic Party has taken toward socialism,” Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said in an interview. “My constituents are fearful when they see proposals to defund the police, abolish our immigration and customs enforcement, when there is burning and looting in cities, concerns over the Green New Deal.”
Those attacks have not stuck to Mr. Biden. The American Action Forum, a conservative think tank led by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and top policy adviser on the 2008 presidential campaign of Senator John McCain, has conducted polls of swing-state voters in recent weeks. In Ohio, the group asked voters why they had concerns over Mr. Biden. Only 4 percent cited “socialist” — compared to nearly a quarter who cited concerns over Mr. Biden’s “do-nothing” record or his mental fitness.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Mr. Trump had not been an effective messenger for the socialist charges. “One of the striking features of the Trump campaigning and governing style is he makes everything personal. There are no abstract policy paradigms — it’s personal,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. “So that’s how people responded. That’s how people evaluate things. They’re evaluating Biden personally.”
Democrats, including the Biden campaign, say the attacks do not work against Mr. Biden because he has built a reputation with voters as a more moderate Democrat, though his campaign’s platform proposes boosting taxes on the rich and corporations and spending increases that far exceeds the scope of previous Democratic nominees for president.
Supporters say that brand has allowed Mr. Biden to parry attacks by Mr. Trump and others that seek to tie him to his contemporaries who embrace the socialist label, like his one-time rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“The fact of the matter is I beat Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Biden said at the debate, when Mr. Trump was pressing him on support for “socialized medicine.”
Data for Progress polling from this spring found Americans placed Mr. Biden near the middle of an ideological spectrum that ranged from “pure capitalism” to “pure socialism,” while they placed Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders farther to the left.
“Voters kind of know what a socialist is and what a socialist isn’t,” said John Anzalone, a partner at ALG Research, who is polling for Mr. Biden’s campaign this year. “They’re comfortable with Joe Biden, and they’ve known him for a long time, and they know he’s not a socialist.”
Ben Casselman contributed reporting.