If Bernie Sanders loses the Democratic primary race for the White House he’ll have no one to blame but himself, marketing and public relations experts tell TheWrap.
The Vermont senator raised eyebrows last week when he said that Hillary Clinton was unfit to be president. In an effort to do damage control, Sanders has walked back his comments, telling NBC News that “of course” Clinton was qualified to occupy the Oval Office. But experts say the harm to Sanders’ image is already done.
“His brand is built on authenticity,” said Chad Kawalec, marketing expert and founder of the Los-Angeles based Brand Identity Center. “The expectations from him is that he will always be above the political fray. And this specific reaction seems to be anything but accurate or fair.”
The claim that Clinton — a former first lady, two-time New York senator and secretary of state — is somehow not qualified to be commader-in-chief angered Clinton supporters and stumped political pundits, who pointed out that Clinton is arguably one of the most experienced candidates to ever apply for the job.
But it also may have exposed Sanders’ willingness to do whatever it takes to win, even if it means stretching the truth.
“She’s qualified, whether he likes it or not,” Kawalec told TheWrap. “So for Sanders — who has built his brand as the truth-teller, the one who is objective and above political influence — to try and convince people that she’s not, could be interpreted as being manipulative.”
Experts say Sanders’ comments could ruin what is perhaps his biggest selling point in a cycle dominated by anti-establishment voter sentiment: His credibility.
The Vermont senator has made campaign ethics one of the central themes of his presidential bid, successfully crafting an image of a man who is beholden to no one. As Sanders has reminded voters time and time again, he does not have a Super PAC.
But that, experts say, comes with a price. While other candidates have gotten away with fudging facts and even outright lying, Sanders is being held to a higher standard… his own.
“Each candidate has his own media DNA,” said Howard Bragman, the founder of Fifteen Minutes PR. “Bernie has a higher calling than traditional campaigns, and with that comes a responsibility as to how you act. Donald Trump can get away with anything. We expect that from him. But Bernie Sanders can’t.”
Sanders’ comments, while not entirely unusual in a presidential campaign, were seen as a “tipping point” by some pundits, who argued that kind of ugly rhetoric was, until recently, reserved for the Republican side of the race.
The sharpening of knives began last week, after Clinton seized on gaffes made by Sanders during an interview with the New York Daily News, where he seemed to struggle to explain how he would break up the big banks, something he’s promised to do repeatedly during his campaign stump speeches.
During an interview with MSNBC, Clinton was asked whether Sanders was unqualified to be president to which she said, “I think he hadn’t done his homework and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood,” adding that it “does raise a lot of questions.”
That seemed to anger Sanders who later that day told supporters at a rally in Philadelphia that Clinton was the one not qualified to be president.
It was a far cry from the candidate who threw his rival a much-needed lifeline during the first Democratic presidential debate in October. As the scandal over Clinton’s use of a private email server during her years as secretary of state was starting to take a toll on her poll numbers, Sanders essentially made it a non-issue, telling the audience, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
It was not only unusual and altruistic, it was perfectly in line with his brand. He was a candidate who stood for the truth, no matter the price.
But experts say the goodwill that followed has now all but evaporated.
“He took too long to take the comments back,” Kawalec said. “And the problem for him is that no one actually thinks that Sanders believes Clinton is not qualified to be president. He himself admitted it. The fact that he was willing to misrepresent the truth to such an extent may have many voters wondering about all the other things he’s said about Clinton in the past.”
As Kawalec put it: “He’s changed the filter through which many voters saw him.”
Not to mention, Sanders has shown that, at least sometimes, he’s not all that different from other politicians.
“I always tell my clients to stay out of the gutter,” Bragman said. “Everybody gets dirty in the gutter.”