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Poll: most voters say they're open to a political revolution to redistribute wealth

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Bernie Sanders wants a political revolution. And most Americans think one might be necessary, according to a new poll conducted by Morning Consult and Vox.

Fifty-four percent of respondents to our online poll — which reached a sample of 1,884 registered voters nationally from Friday, January 29, through Sunday, January 31, 2016 — agreed that a "political revolution might be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class." Just 30 percent said they disagreed. (Morning Consult Intelligence members can head to their site to view the poll's full toplines and crosstabs.)

Liberals and liberal-leaning demographics were most likely to agree with the statement. But majorities of independents, white voters, evangelicals, and even Tea Party supporters in our sample agreed too — showing that redistribution may no longer be a dirty word in American politics.

Of course, keep in mind that responses to a poll statement in a vacuum may differ quite a bit from how people will feel after hearing political debate and messaging from both sides.

And the poll contained one troubling result for Sanders. When people were asked whether big government or big business was a bigger threat to the country's future, 55 percent named big government, compared with only 29 percent who named big business — suggesting the country hasn't moved so far to the left after all, and that an agenda that will expand government remains a tough sell.

Still, Sanders is betting that his economics-focused electoral appeal can win over white voters who have tended to support the GOP. And this poll implies that they might like at least some of what he has to say.

The idea of a "political revolution" polls well

We were curious whether the phrase "political revolution" would excite people or turn them off, so we asked half our sample whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "In the next decade, a political revolution might be necessary to redistribute money from the wealthiest Americans to the middle class."

A redistributive revolution turned out to be popular. Fifty-four percent of registered voters said they either strongly or somewhat agreed that it might be necessary, compared with 30 percent who either strongly or somewhat disagreed.

Agreement with the statement was strongest among African Americans (68-12), Hispanics (65-15), Democrats (68-17), and 18- to 29-year-olds (68-20). And support was weakest among Republicans (36-51) and seniors (38-43).

But, encouragingly for Sanders, majorities of less liberal groups agreed with the statement too — like independents (51-27), moderates (54-27), whites (51-33), evangelicals (51-36), people who said they didn't vote in 2012 (58-19), and even Tea Party supporters (55-36).

However, it's worth noting that the "somewhat agree" numbers tended to be higher than the "strongly agree" numbers for most of these groups. For instance, 20 percent of moderates strongly agreed, compared with 34 percent who somewhat agreed. So don't assume these voters are completely sold on the political revolution just yet.

Another important thing to note is that our question specified that the redistributed money would go to the "middle class" (rather than, say, to the poor, or to all Americans). Sanders does indeed often emphasize the middle class, but it would be interesting to see whether different wording here might change the results.

We did test one vaguer alternate political revolution statement that didn't mention redistribution of wealth — asking the other half of our sample if, "In the next decade, a political revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties."

This turned out to be slightly more popular, with 59 percent of registered voters agreeing with the statement and 23 percent disagreeing. That's because there was overwhelming enthusiasm for this "liberties" revolution from Republicans (70-20), evangelicals (69-19), and Tea Party supporters (76-12). Pluralities or majorities of practically every other group agreed too, though, again, "somewhat agree" numbers tended to be higher than "strongly agree."

Sanders's message and agenda poll well in isolation

We went on to test some more specific parts of Sanders's message and agenda. For instance, we asked whether "the US economic system generally favors the wealthy or is fair to most Americans." An overwhelming majority of respondents — 75 percent — said the wealthy were favored, compared with just 17 percent who thought things were fair to most Americans.

Hiking taxes on rich people and big businesses is extremely popular. We asked whether, "to help reduce income inequality in the United States," taxes should be increased on "wealthy Americans" (asked to half our sample) and "large corporations" (asked to the other half). The former got 73 percent support to 21 percent opposition, and the latter got 66 percent support to 23 percent opposition.

In the abstract, single-payer health care is popular too, even when it's mentioned that taxes will fund it. We asked whether respondents would "support or oppose a single-payer health care system, in which all Americans would get their health insurance from one government plan that is financed by taxes." Fifty-five percent strongly or somewhat supported it, and 28 percent strongly or somewhat opposed it.

There are, of course, many far more negative ways to frame single-payer — Vox's Dave Roberts suggests that Republicans might call it "a trillion dollars in new taxes to fund a grand socialist scheme to take away everyone's health care insurance and hand them over to government doctors" — but this result does show that people don't immediately recoil from the idea of one government health plan.

We also checked what people thought of Sanders's plan for free college, asking whether respondents "support or oppose the government using taxes to pay tuition at public colleges and universities in order to make college free to students." Fifty-nine percent said they either strongly or somewhat supported this idea, and 31 percent strongly or somewhat opposed it.

But one serious challenge for Sanders is that people think big government is worse than big business

Yet Sanders supporters shouldn't get too excited just yet. Because we also asked our entire sample: "Which do you think is a greater potential threat to the country's future — Big Businesses or Big Government?"

The results weren't as promising for his agenda on this front. Fifty-five percent of registered voters thought big government was more dangerous, compared with 29 percent who thought big business was.

Indeed, majorities in most of the swing demographic groups who seemed interested in a political revolution turn out to be more worried about big government than big business, such as moderates (53-27), whites (58-28), people who said they didn't vote in 2012 (51-28), and evangelicals (67-16). And even many liberal-leaning groups showed more of their voters are concerned about big government: African Americans (45-31), Hispanics (55-32), and 18- to 29-year-olds (47-36).

Overall, these results indicate that criticism of big government still has serious potency among a broad cross section of Americans — more so, even, than Sanders's frequent criticism of corporate power.

Furthermore, Sanders wants to greatly expand government spending on health care, infrastructure, education, and the broader safety net. While those proposals might be popular in isolation, it's certain that critics will attack them as an expansion of "big government." And those attacks just might work.