How Bernie Sanders is making the Democrats play nice

As Bernie Sanders explained during his interview with Ellen DeGeneres on Wednesday, he has avoided negative ads and comments thus far in the presidential race – and he plans on keeping it that way. 

Mike Rozman/Warner Bros, AP
In this photo released by Warner Bros., talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, right, appears with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show”on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 in Burbank, Calif. This episode airs on Thursday, Oct. 15.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has promised his supporters that he will focus on the real issues during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. And so far, he has followed through on this promise.

Like his competitors, Mr. Sanders has appeared on a variety of comedic talk shows, such as "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," "Late Night with Seth Meyers," and most recently, "Ellen," hosted by actor/comedian Ellen DeGeneres.

Senator Sanders’s appearance on Ms. DeGeneres’s show highlights the his ability to simultaneously talk the issues and show a lighter side of his personality – all while avoiding negative comments on his competition.

To begin their conversation, DeGeneres replayed a clip for Mr. Sanders from the presidential debate Tuesday, when he let former US secretary of State Hillary Clinton off easy on her “damn email” issue. 

DeGeneres asked Sanders why he didn’t take advantage of Mrs. Clinton’s most vulnerable point

“I’m very proud to say, I’ve never run a negative political ad in my entire life, and I’ve been attacked a whole lot,” Sanders responded. 

DeGeneres’s question highlights what some believe is a major weakness – or strength – of Sanders’s campaign. He has pointedly avoided all of the dramatized aspects of politics in order to focus on what he considers to be the real issues.

“If I were standing here tonight and making some vicious attack against Hillary Clinton or anybody else, it’d be a front-page story,” Sanders said Wednesday after his taping with DeGeneres at a campaign rally in California. “But if we talk about why the middle class is disappearing and almost all the income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent – not a big story.”

Sanders’s policy-first approach is clearly not a recipe for attracting media coverage. Although the Democratic candidate has witnessed serious success in the polls, he has often been the victim of a media blackout. Earlier this month, The Christian Science Monitor reported that Sanders had only been given a total of eight minutes on network news (about 1.5 percent of the minutes devoted thus far to the presidential race). 

But Sanders has not swerved from his determination to keep the issues he cares about front and center. “What the political revolution is, is forcing a debate,” Sanders said in Beverly Hills Wednesday. “Not about trivial, but the real issues.”

And in this respect, Senator Sanders may be defining the entire Democratic presidential race. 

A pro-Clinton super political action committee (PAC), Correct the Record, sent one reporter an e-mail criticizing Sanders last month, linking the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist with the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Britain's new Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. 

Unlike most super PACs, Correct the Record coordinates directly with Clinton’s campaign. Sanders’s voter base took offense and responded accordingly.

Immediately after the e-mail was sent, Sanders’s campaign e-mailed supporters, “It’s the second time a billionaire Super PAC has tried to stop the momentum of the political revolution we’re building together.” The Vermont senator raised more than $1.2 million in less than 48 hours, making it clear that taking the high road hasn’t necessarily been negative for his campaign. 

It may also suggest that Clinton may have to be cautious about publicly attacking Sanders on the campaign trail. Because by avoiding negative attacks himself, he is daring competitors to throw the first punch. 

[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the medium by which Correct the Record's criticism was transmitted.]

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