Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders will 'absolutely' work with Trump to lower prescription drug costs Sanders says he will introduce 'Medicare for all' bill Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill MORE is the only serious contender on either side of the presidential race who has not been hit with substantial negative advertising – giving him a significant boost against his rival Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats step up calls that Russian hack was act of war Comet Ping Pong shooter pleads guilty Time for 'J. Edgar' Comey to take his leave MORE, who has already had millions spent against her by Republicans.
The lack of attacks against Sanders highlights a dilemma Hillary Clinton faces in the primary: She has to be careful not to alienate Sanders’s supporters who are the most energetic elements of her party’s base. At the same time, the Vermont Independent is getting a free pass from Republicans who believe it is smarter to wait and pounce on him if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
So far this primary season, only $10,000 worth of negative super-PAC advertising has been spent against Sanders – and this tiny spend was by the group supporting Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley – according to The Hill's analysis of Federal Election Commission records. No other major candidate has benefited from such an attack-free run, which might help explain why Sanders’s potential vulnerability as a Democratic Socialist has not harmed him in polls as pundits originally expected.
Even the outsider GOP front-runner Donald Trump – who has some opponents fearful of running attack ads due to his vicious retorts – is now being hit by well-funded super-PAC and campaign ads from both Republicans and Democrats.
Hitting Sanders appears to be an even more dangerous proposition than going after Trump, though for different reasons.
Clinton and her campaign surrogates have begun criticizing Sanders more forcefully leading up to the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, describing his foreign policy and single-payer healthcare positions as untenable, but the campaign has so far avoided running a single negative ad against her chief opponent.
Nor has Clinton’s super-PAC. Priorities USA is believed to have made a strategic decision to avoid paid primary assaults on Sanders. The super-PAC is mostly conserving its funds for the general election, and it is keenly understood among Clinton allies how easily Sanders – whose central message is a war cry against billionaires and super-PACs – would exploit a well-funded independent attack against him.
Making Sanders’s life even easier is a strategic move by Republicans not to run ads against Sanders for the time being, even though an advertising campaign against a self-described Democratic Socialist almost writes itself, says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s insurgent campaign in 2004.
“We know what [Republicans] did with a genuine war hero,” said Trippi, referring to the damaging "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth" ads run against decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry in 2004.
“So imagine what they’re going to do with Sanders” in a general election.
“It will be hammer and sickles and red flags and Chinese Mao and Vietnamese sympathizer… you name it," said Trippi, who is neutral for 2016.
Republicans have hinted at future strikes against Sanders – Trump, for example, has labeled Sanders a "Communist" – but for the most part, they are warehousing such lines in the hope that the Vermont Independent pulls off an unlikely victory against Clinton and becomes what many view as a uniquely vulnerable general election candidate.
In the most recent debate Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that Republicans would win all 50 states if Sanders were the nominee.
Trippi sees why. “The Republicans sit there and go, ‘please God let this guy cut through. I am not going to call him a Socialist until he’s the nominee and I will rub my hands together with glee',” Trippi said, speaking as if he was a Republican strategist.
By contrast, Republicans have hit Clinton with at least $5.3 million worth of negative ads, according to a Democratic source who tracks media buys.
Conservative groups that have already run opposition advertising against Clinton include the Republican National Committee, Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, America Rising (run by former top aides to Mitt Romney), and super-PACs supporting GOP presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Kasich.
American Crossroads is targeting Clinton in Iowa with more than $50,000 worth of digital ads running this week tying her to “Wall Street cash” – one of her major perceived vulnerabilities with the Democratic base.
The pro-Clinton Priorities USA is fighting back on her behalf, and Clinton told ABC’s "This Week" that she finds the Rove attacks “flattering” because it shows “how desperate the Republicans are to prevent me from becoming the nominee.” But these negative ads are likely taking a toll on her favorability and polling, which has been flagging recently as Sanders looks ever-likelier to win in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“The Clinton campaign is still struggling over how to handle an insurgent Sanders campaign,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former senior adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
“Sanders runs a kind of campaign that would thrive on such an attack,” Manley added.
A heavy Clinton super-PAC campaign against the Vermont Independent would enliven his already remarkable fundraising and allow him to make the case to his younger, more liberal fans – a base Clinton needs to turn out to win a general election – that Clinton is “beholden to the super-PACs and special interests.”
Sanders's spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but recent statements show they are skilled at turning attacks from Clinton allies into vulnerabilities for the Democratic front-runner.
Sanders’ team has taken umbrage at Chelsea Clinton’s claims, – judged “mostly false” by PolitiFact – that Sanders’s health plan would help Republicans “take away Medicaid.”
The Clinton campaign was reminded again on Thursday of the dangers of hitting Sanders, as the Clinton super-PAC ally David Brock made the provocative suggestion that a recent and well-received ad by the Sanders campaign indicated that “black lives don't matter much to Bernie Sanders" because the ad features overwhelmingly white faces.
Liberal commentators took instant umbrage at Brock's comments, and the Sanders campaign issued a tough statement about her ties to special interest cash - which could be read as a warning note - jabbing at Clinton's most sensitive areas.
“I am sure there are some folks who want to go down this path,” said the Democratic strategist, Manley, referring to the calculations of running negative ads against Sanders.
“But an insurgent campaign like the Sanders campaign would just thrive on it, would feed on this idea that everyone’s against him.”