Friday, January 22, 2016

Bernie Sanders: Unelectable Bolshevik! Or Is He?

On the rare occasions when he's mentioned at all in the corporate press, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is ubiquitously marginalized, treated as a crank, someone whose views mean he couldn't possibly draw enough support to win. Overtly right-wing sources call him an "extremist," a "radical," of the "far left" and relentlessly redbait him. As Sanders' Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton loses ground to the Vermont Senator, she and her surrogates have taken to echoing these attacks, raising the specter of Sanders as an unelectable Bolshevik, a fringe nut advocating "a lot of wackadoodle ideas."

But while political attacks are par for the course in a presidential campaign, these in particular manage to beg some questions already frequently begged by that press coverage, not only of Sanders but of American politics in general. While no one would deny Bernie Sanders is a man of the left, are his views particularly radical? A radical, by definition, significantly departs from the broad political center. So what--or, more particularly, where--is the broad political center in the U.S.? As the good people over at Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting have documented for decades, the corporate press persistently defines "the center" as way, way to the right of the public. "The center" isn't some political party or movement with some manifesto one can consult but neither is it some amorphous concept. America is subjected to a great deal of opinion polling. Discovering the extent of Sanders' deviation from the political center is simply a matter of some research.

This seemed to us a worthy project, to take Sanders' views on his major issues and compare them to the views of the larger public. Are the positions he takes so out-of-the-mainstream as to justify all this hair-pulling and jumping about? Are they so unpalatable to the public as to render him unelectable?

We weren't the first to contemplate an article of this sort. As noted on this blog, Josh Harkinson, writing in Mother Jones last May, put together a presentation on the theme but it was fairly brief and superficial. In June, Philip Bump, writing in the Washington Post, followed suit but while he concluded "Americans broadly support the things that are on Sanders's agenda, with a number of particular footnotes," his survey too was rather superficial (and the web version feature some of the least accurate graphics you'll see anywhere outside Fox News).

For our own presentation, we've undertaken a much broader canvas of the available polling data, probably the broadest by anyone to date. For Sanders' views, we've used the text of his announcement that he was entering the presidential contest, supplemented at various points by related items from Sanders' official site and Unless we overlooked any, we've checked every view Sanders offered in that speech for which usable polling exists.

That's also the first caveat to what we've done. Because Sanders is a lefty and so often addresses issues left behind by the mainstream corporate press, there's often a dearth of polling on those matters. On others, the existing polling is hopelessly inadequate, corrupted by poorly-formed questions, questions built around temporary political events long since passed and so on. The pollsters cited have earned varied reputations--it's doubtful all the polling work is as good as the best of the batch. The pollsters use different samples--adults, registered voters, likely voters, etc.--and this yields varied results (though usually not widely varied). They use different wording, which will also produced varied results.[1] All of the polling is from the last few years; we've tried to get the most recent data possible but on some issues, we had to take what we could get.[2] Sometimes a single poll will appear more than once, as it featured questions relevant to more than one issue we were examining. We weeded out a lot of redundant polling--if it showed essentially the same result as a poll we'd already found but was taken two months earlier, we didn't bother with it (with one exception, which is explained where it occurs). Being political junkies, we knew beforehand how a lot of the polling would fall but we haven't in any way cherry-picked the polling data to produce predetermined results. The data we haven't used--or at least the data we found but didn't use--looks pretty much like what we did use. There will probably be some exceptions we didn't uncover. There probably won't be many though.

We anticipate a charge of cherry-picking because, though those earlier articles in Mother Jones and the Washington Post were imperfect,[3] we found their overall conclusions were essentially correct; there is widespread public support for Sanders' proposals. Sometimes overwhelming support, sometimes thinner majority support, sometimes a mixed bag wherein Sanders' view is that of a substantial minority. In many cases, even a majority of Republicans support Sanders' position. In no case was Sanders' view radically out of the mainstream of public opinion.[4] These conclusions not only bear on the immediate matter of the political attacks on Sanders for his allegedly "radical" views and how those attacks should be covered, they also present a roadmap of the genuine political center in the U.S. and suggest a, yes, radical reevaluation by much of the corporate press of how it tends to define that center is not only appropriate but long overdue.

Some notes: Sanders quotes are in italicized bold print and, except where otherwise noted, are from his speech. With a few exceptions in which we reorganized some things in the name of simplification, they occur in the same order as they do in the speech.

"The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time and it is the great political issue of our time. And we will address it... This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable. This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about. This has got to change and, as your president, together we will change it... We need a tax system which is fair and progressive, which makes wealthy individuals and profitable corporations begin to pay their fair share of taxes."

- 66% agreed that "the government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor," including 65% of independents and 42% of Republicans (Sept., 2014)

- 83% think the income gap between the wealthy and everyone else is either a major problem (51%) or a problem (32%). This includes 84% of independents and 75% of Republicans (Jan. 2015)

- 65% agree large businesses pay too little in taxes (Jan. 2015, from the same poll as above)

- 68% say wealthy households pay too little in taxes (Feb. 2015)

- 62% believe upper-income Americans are paying too little federal taxes and 69% believe corporations pay too little. Huge majorities have told Gallup the same thing on both questions for over 20 years (April 2015).

- 68% support "raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year" (Jun. 2015).

"American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer... This is not democracy. This is oligarchy... [W]e know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote--with every citizen having an equal say--and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign."

- 88% say big companies have too much power and influence in the nation's capitol, including 93% of independents and 84% of Republicans; 87% agree that PACs have too much power and influence, including 94% of independents and 89% of Republicans; 85% think banks and other financial institutions have too much power and influence, including 89% of independents and 86% of Republicans (Jun. 2011)

- 78% of voters believe "reducing the role of money in politics" is important, including 81% of independents and 71% of Republicans (Aug. 2014)

- 84% think "money has too much influence" in American political campaigns, including 84% of independents and 80% of Republicans. In the same poll, 55% said candidates "promote policies that directly help" their contributors "most of the time," including 59% of independents and 54% of Republicans (Jun 2015)

"[W]e must be deadly serious about campaign finance reform and the need for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.... I will not nominate any justice to the Supreme Court who has not made it clear that he or she will move to overturn that disastrous decision which is undermining our democracy. Long term, we need to go further and establish public funding of elections."

- 80% are opposed to the Citizens United ruling, 65% "strongly"; the total includes 81% of independents and 75% of Republicans; 72% support congressional action to void the ruling (Feb. 2010)

- 62% of voters oppose the ruling (Jan. 2012)

- 50% support for banning all private contributions and establishing a system of public funding for political campaigns, including 48% of independents and 41% of Republicans. A whopping 79% said they would vote for a law that would put a limit on the amount of money congressional candidates could raise and spend for their political campaigns; this included 78% of independents and 78% of Republicans (Jun. 2013).

- 61% are opposed to the Citizens United ruling, 51% "strongly"; total includes 62% of independents and 58% of Republicans; 55% of voters favor a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling, including 50% of independents and 54% of Republicans (Aug. 2014).

- 54% reject the notion that money given to political candidates is "a form of free speech"; 75% agreed that outside groups who spend money on campaigns should be required to publicly disclose their contributors; 78% said spending on political ads by outside groups "should be limited by law"; 77% favored "limiting the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns" over unlimited contributions (Jun. 2015).

- 78% said the Citizens United ruling "should be overturned," including 71% of independents and 80% of Republicans (Sept. 2015)

"At a time when our roads, bridges, water systems, rail and airports are decaying, the most effective way to rapidly create meaningful jobs is to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation which would invest $1 trillion over 5 years to modernize our country’s physical infrastructure."

- 93% of voters ranked improving the nation's transportation infrastructure as extremely important (27%), very important (39%) or somewhat important (27%). (Feb. 2011)

- 77% support a federal program to put people to work on "urgent infrastructure repairs," including 71% of independents and 53% of Republicans (Mar. 2013)

- 45% said the government should spend more on infrastructure, 31% said it should spend the same and 15% wanted to spend less; asked how important it was for the government to fund infrastructure projects, 79% chose "one of the most important issues" (8%), very important (37%) or somewhat important (34%) (Jul. 2014)

- 60% of registered voters say more needs to be spent on infrastructure and 63% believe roads and bridges aren't being properly maintained (Oct. 2015)

[Infrastructure was one of the issues on which there simply isn't a great deal of good polling. When Philip Bump considered the matter of infrastructure in his Washington Post piece, he cited a Feb. 2011 poll by Fox News which had concluded that, as he described it, "a large majority oppose spending on infrastructure ... if their taxes go up." But that poll has several series problems, both in itself and in the use Bump made of it. The full poll question was, "President Obama’s new federal budget proposal includes increases in government spending on infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and on domestic programs like helping pay for community college as well as a pay raise for federal workers. Would you support this proposal if it were funded by an increase in taxes for people like you?" Problem 1: It invokes Obama. Any competent pollster is well-aware that's potentially very prejudicial, as it's blatantly inviting an emotional partisan response, rather than a thoughtful, substantive one. People tend to become very weary of a president in his second term in general. It all rubs off.  Problem 2: Though Bump used this question to make the case that people disagree with infrastructure spending, it doesn't just cover that issue; it covers spending on two other big items, all totally different. If a respondent doesn't like any one of the three, this can result in a negative response to all (a dynamic that also works in the reverse). The question doesn't allow people to approve or disapprove of each individually. Problem 3: The big one is that wording telling people their taxes are going to go up is ridiculously prejudicial, an utter violation of competent pollcraft. It tends to result in low marks for any issue on which respondents don't have very strong feelings. This is the cartoon version of polling and useless in this evaluation.]

"I will also continue to oppose our current trade policies. For decades, presidents from both parties have supported trade agreements which have cost us millions of decent paying jobs as corporate America shuts down plants here and moves to low-wage countries. As president, my trade policies will break that cycle of agreements which enrich at the expense of the working people of this country."

- 63% chose "trade restrictions are necessary to protect domestic industries" over "free trade must be allowed, even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition"; asked if they favor or oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement, 63% said they didn't know enough about it to have an opinion. Asked how much they head "heard or read" about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, 78% said nothing at all (48%) or not much (30%) (Jun. 2015).

- 34%, a plurality, says free trade agreements slow the economy vs. 31% who assert it makes the economy grow and 25% who say it makes no difference; 46%, another plurality, say free trade agreements lower wages vs. 11% who say they make wages higher and 33% who say it doesn't make any difference; 46%, another plurality, say such agreements lead to job losses, as opposed to 17% who think they create jobs and 28% who don't think they make any difference. At the same time, 58% say free trade agreements are, in general, "a good thing for the United States" vs. 33% who say they're a bad thing (May 2015)

- 34%, a plurality, said free trade deals have hurt the U.S., as opposed to 29% who said it hurt and 28% who said it made no difference (Jun. 2015).

[Confused yet? Sanders is opposed to big "free trade" agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which really has very little to do with trade anyway). There's very little polling on those agreements and polluting the results of the existing polling is the fact that there's very little public knowledge of them, the fact that Americans have a positive view of trade in the abstract and the fact that the only thing most ever hear of such deals is from advocates of them promising rainbows and unicorns. The polls above all occur in a relatively short span of time but yield results that are all over the board. In his Mother Jones piece, Josh Harkinson noted that "sixty-two percent of voters oppose fast-track authority for the TPP trade deal" but quoted an absolutely hopeless 2014 Pew poll which "put support for the TPP at 55%." But that Pew poll made no effort to learn if respondents actually even knew anything about the TPP, something most wouldn't because the deal had been negotiated in secret and, as covered by this blog, had been subject to one of the most remarkable news blackouts of any issue of comparable importance. Pew's results were derived from Americans' positive opinion of trade in general. The CBS News/New York Times poll cited above documents the profound lack of knowledge of the TPP. In his Washington Post piece, Philip Bump cited that poll and gave the win to Sanders. That's probably justifiable in a short, not-very-detailed piece--most Americans aren't going to back something they think hurts the country--but these nuances we've described here deserve to be at least aired.]

"Let us be honest and acknowledge that millions of Americans are now working for totally inadequate wages. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised."

- 73% of registered voters favored raising the minimum wage to $10/hr. and indexing it to inflation, including 74% of independents and 50% of Republicans (Feb. 2012)

- 71% favored raising the minimum wage to $9/hr., including 68% of independents and 50% of Republicans (Feb. 2013)

- 73% support raising the minimum wage to $12.50/hr., including 73% of independents and 53% of Republicans. In the same poll, 63% of respondents favor raising it to $15/hr. (Jan. 2015)

- 71% supported raising the minimum wage to $10.10/hr. (Jun. 2015)

"[W]e need paid sick leave and guaranteed vacation time for all."


"There should be no question that new parents should be allowed to stay home with their newborn children. Sick workers should have the ability to stay home when they are unwell. Moreover, employers must provide their employees a reasonable amount of vacation time, so people can come together to relax and recharge."

- 69% support a law mandating paid vacation time (Jul. 2008)

- 86% favored a proposal that would mandate 7 paid sick-days a year (Jun. 2010)

 - 71% say they favor mandatory sick-leave days, with only 10% opposed (Mar. 2014)

- 75% support a paid vacation-time law, including 65% of Republicans (Aug 2014)

- 81% favored legislation mandating paid sick-leave, while 78% favor mandatory paid leave for the birth of a child (Sept. 2014)

- 70% favored paid sick leave, including 70% of independents and 51% of Republicans; 67% favored paid maternity leave, including 67% of independents and 50% of Republicans; 55% support paid paternity leave, including 55% of independents and 36% of Republicans (Feb. 2015)

"It is time to break up the largest financial institutions in the country. Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial instruments while expecting the public to bail it out. If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist."

- 50% favor a plan to break up the megabanks (Mar. 2013)

- 58% of likely voters, including 50% of independents and 51% of Republicans; the same poll asked about breaking up "financial institutions that are deemed 'too big to fail' and found 55% support, including 60% of independents and 47% of Republicans (Jan. 2015)

[In his piece in the Washington Post, Philip Bump asserts "there's not good, recent polling data on this rather esoteric question." We don't exactly understand how this rather concrete policy proposal is an "esoteric question" but Bump is certainly correct about there being a sparsity of polling on it--this is the sort of subject that, for the most part, the corporate press simply doesn't touch and that includes commissioning polls on it. One group that isn't shy about asking such questions is the liberal Progressive Change Institute, which conducted the second poll we've cited. If that source seems a bit too suspect, the other poll, though a couple years older, was conducted by the conservative Rasmussen Reports, a pollster notorious for generating absurdly skewed polls via absurdly skewed questions and methodology, "polls" that are of little real use except as right-wing propaganda. Both reach similar conclusions. Here, that's the best we've got.]

"[W]e need a tax on carbon to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel."

- 61% support such a tax; if the revenue from the tax was returned to Americans through a reduction in income taxes, support rose to 67% (Apr. 2015)

[The polling on this issue is both thin and terrible. This is the only good one we've found.]

"The United States must join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care to all as a right by moving toward a Medicare-for-All single-payer system."

- 58% support for an expanded Medicare-for-all, 50% support for a plan "in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan" (Jul. 2009)

- 37% of likely voters say they "support a single-payer health care system where the federal government provides coverage for everyone" (Apr. 2014)

- 51% of likely voters support "a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance through an expanded, universal form of Medicare" (Jan. 2015)

- 51% agree "it is the responsibility of the federal government to make sure all Americans have healthcare coverage," an imprecise but not entirely useless question--it comes close enough to Sanders' notion of guaranteeing healthcare. The same poll asked, much less helpfully, "Which of the following approaches for providing healthcare in the United States would you prefer, a government-run healthcare system or a system based mostly on private health insurance?" But, of course, there's no advocacy anywhere in the U.S. for a full-blown British-style "government-run healthcare system"--the question is stupid and pointless and, as the pros at Gallup are well-aware, grossly prejudicial. Still, even with wording that lopsided, 44% still chose the "government-run healthcare system." (Nov. 2015)

- 58% favored Medicare-for-all, 34% of them "strongly." Those supporting it include 60% of independents and 30% of Republicans (Dec. 2015)

[The 2014 Rasmussen poll is obviously an outlier here; Rasmussen has a long history of manipulating methodology and often even the wording of polls in order to generate conservative-friendly responses. This particular one, which still showed a solid 37% support for single payer, has multiple problems and it probably would have been best to leave it out but it's out there, so it's here.]

"Sanders plan will require Medicare to use its bargaining power to negotiate with the prescription drug companies for better prices – a practice that is currently banned by law."

- 79% of likely voters support allowing the government to do so (Jan. 2015)

- 84% support allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices on all drugs (69%), just high-cost prescription drugs (13%), plus 2% who favor negotiation but were unsure about whether it should be for all drugs or just for the expensive ones. This includes 81% of Republicans. (Nov. 2015)

"Bernie supports the medical use of marijuana and the rights of states to determine its legality... Bernie has said he would vote yes as a resident of a state considering legalization [of marijuana]. For federal legalization, he has said that he supports ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, allowing states to opt for legalization if they so choose."

- 55% favor allowing regulated businesses to sell marijuana, including 38% of Republicans (Jan. 2014)

- 53% said "marijuana should be legal," including 45% of Republicans; 84% said doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for patients with serious illnesses; 58% said states should be allowed to decide if marijuana is legal within their borders (Apr. 2015)

- 49% favor legalization of marijuana "for recreational use," unfortunate wording that seems to have been introduced merely to queer the results but still draws plurality supporting, including that of 27% of Republicans. In the same poll, 81% favor legalization for medical use, including 69% of Republicans (Feb. 2015)

- 58% said marijuana should be "made legal" - Oct. 2015

- With one exception that fell within the margin of error, Gallup has found this to be the majority view since its Oct. 2011 poll on the subject:

[The polling on the larger matter of marijuana legalization is, strictly speaking, outside the proper scope of this survey but the medical marijuana polling--the item we were chasing--is tied up with it, so we just figured "What the hell?" Threw it in too.]

"Instead of cutting Social Security, we’re going to expand Social Security benefits."

- 79% of likely voters favor "increasing Social Security benefits and paying for that increase by having wealthy Americans pay the same rate into Social Security as everyone else" (Sep. 2014).

- 70% of likely voters support expanding Social Security benefits. This poll uses almost identical wording to the one above (Jan. 2015)

"[W]e are going to move to a universal pre-K system for all the children of this country."

- 70% supported universal access to preschool, including 60% of Republicans (Jul. 2013)

- 60% support for a measure to give children from low- and moderate income households "the opportunity to attend a preschool program, with the government paying the tuition" (Aug. 2013).

- 84% support universal pre-k - (Jan. 2014)

- 70% support, including 53% of Republicans and 70% of independents (Aug. 2014)

"It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That must end. That is why, as president, I will fight to make tuition in public colleges and universities free, as well as substantially lower interest rates on student loans."

- 82% (Nov. 2014)

- 63% of likely voters support offering students two tuition-free years of community college, including 53% of independents and 47% of Republicans. The same poll showed even bigger support--71%--for providing "federal financial assistance to states to make public colleges and universities more affordable," but tacked on wording about this being done "so that all students have access to debt-free college education in America," which can queer the results. Support for this included 61% of independents and 56% of Republicans. Still another crack at it in the same poll showed that 62% favored providing "financial incentives to state colleges and universities, but also included language that said this was being done "to ensure all students have access to debt-free college education in America." That total included 51% of independents and 46% of Republicans (Jan. 2015).

- 68% supported President Obama's plan to "offer two years of community college free for students who maintain a C+ average and are making progress toward a degree"; support included 64% of independents and 42% of Republicans and that's with the invocation of "President Obama" in the question (Jan. 2015)

- 53% of registered voters supported the same plan but it's polled here with much stronger wording; this poll not only invoked Obama but said the plan comes "at a cost to the federal government of $60 billion over ten years." Support for this included 76% of Democrats, 54% of independents but only 23% of Republicans (Jan. 2015)

- 55% support free college tuition. As an alternative, the same poll asked, "Do you favor or oppose the government using taxes to pay tuition at public colleges and universities in order to make college free for students?" 46% supported vs. 41% opposed (Aug. 2015)

- 60% supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal to lower student interest rates to 0.75%, including 56% of independents and 56% of Republicans (Jun. 2013)

- 78% support for the same idea among likely voters (Jan. 2015)

"As president, I will defend this nation – but I will do it responsibly. As a member of Congress I voted against the war in Iraq, and that was the right vote."

- 57% say "the United States made a mistake sending troops to fight in Iraq," a fairly strongly-worded question (Jun. 2014)

- 66% of registered voters say the Iraq war was "not worth it" (Oct. 2014)

- 59% of voters say going to war in Iraq was the wrong thing to do (May 2015)

"We must be vigorous in combating terrorism and defeating ISIS, but we should not have to bear that burden alone. We must be part of an international coalition, led by Muslim nations, that can not only defeat ISIS but begin the process of creating conditions for a lasting peace."


"I have supported U.S. airstrikes against ISIS and believe they are authorized under current law, and I support targeted U.S. military efforts to protect U.S. citizens."

- 75% favor U.S. airstrikes against ISIS (Nov. 2015)

- 66% of registered voters chose "the U.S. should be part of a coalition to fight ISIS," over "the U.S. should be leading the fight" and "the U.S. should not be fighting ISIS," including 67% of independents and 49% of Republicans (Dec. 2015)

In his Mother Jones piece, Josh Harkinson tested the question of Sanders being a "socialist." He cited a Dec. 2011 Pew poll wherein 60% of respondents had a negative reaction to the word "socialism" and ruled against Sanders. There are other polls one could cite on this matter. In June 2015, for example, 50% of respondents told Gallup they wouldn't vote for a generic "socialist" vs. 47% who said they would. But numbers like that aren't really instructive as to Sanders' prospects. "Socialism" in the abstract has a negative connotation to many because Americans have been conditioned to think of it as brutal Bolshevism. Sanders is a flesh-and-blood candidate though, not an abstraction, and he's a social democrat, a hybrid of socialism and liberalism that is mostly liberalism, not some would-be Stalin figure. He refutes the caricature simply by going about his business as he has for decades. Our work here has demonstrated that not only do his politics fail to put him outside the broad mainstream, he probably more closely resembles that mainstream than any other candidate in the current presidential race and he's certainly much more representative of the political center than what the corporate press chooses to characterize as the political center.

--Mitch Clark and j.


[1] Doing that isn't, as so many seem to think, some sort of trick. It is a fact that, in the polling world, there are unscrupulous clowns who use ridiculously stacked questions for the sole purpose of ferreting out a predetermined result. Rasmussen is notorious for this sort of nonsense. But a poll produces a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional world. Polling that hits the same issue from multiple angles can produce a more complete portrait and as long as its methodology is otherwise sound, even these bad polls can usually contribute to this.

[2] And, of course, older data can, when paired with the newer, be useful in illustrating a longer-term tend in opinion.

[3] Ours won't be perfect either but we think we've generated a substantial upgrade over those previous efforts.

[4] Sanders does hold other views that may not poll as well--his proposed agenda is rather vast--and we contemplated testing and including some of the others here but ultimately rejected the notion. This was a fairly substantial project as is and "mission creep" loomed over taking it very far beyond the parameters of the checkable items in Sanders' announcement speech. The Sanders material we used to supplement the speech was, with only one exception (general marijuana decriminalization), intended to provide more details about proposals mentioned in the speech.

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