Politicians pay consultants millions to control the “optics” around their campaigns. Yet even as they attempt to control it, the persona of a candidate that ultimately emerges for public consumption is often the result of serendipity and things beyond a candidate’s control. Howard Dean‘s presidential hopes were sunk by a single scream. George H.W. Bush had that election-turning moment in a supermarket where it became clear he’d never seen a scanner — out-of-touch 101.
And then there are the imitators who — especially at a Saturday Night Live level –can become almost a twin of the actual person in the public mind. Polls showed that Tina Fey’s mimicry influenced opinion on the real Sarah Palin. It’s believed Will Ferrell’s charming rendition of George W. Bush raised the president’s favorability, even as it undermined his intellectual chops. (Americans thought “strategery” was a pretty good word, apparently.) The latest polls show Bernie Sanders‘ favorability stagnant after recent surges. The flatlining coincides with back-to-back SNL appearances by Larry David who, imitating Sanders, makes him seem like a raving revolutionary lacking dignity. No evidence exists of a direct correlation between the parody and the new poll numbers. But anyone who thinks these images don’t affect the optics isn’t paying attention. The question is does David’s sharp portrayal of Sanders reinforce the notion that the senator from Vermont is unpresidential, unelectable? The next Democratic debate is on Saturday night. If Larry David shows up again on NBC later that evening, it’ll be interesting to see which Sanders (the real or the parody) resonates with the public on Sunday.