Bernie Sanders looked exhausted as he got off a flight from Las Vegas in October at Burbank Bob Hope Airport and walked through the concourse, to be met by a reporter with a question. The query concerned the record ratings for the first Democratic debate, and Sanders gave a serious, on-message answer that tied the Nielsens to his campaign’s core message, saying the numbers proved that viewers are interested in “the real crises facing the American middle class.” An hour later, Sanders was decidedly more lighthearted, dancing on a Warner Bros.This story first appeared in the April 26, 2016 issue of Variety. soundstage during an appearance on “The Ellen De Generes Show,” where he answered questions about his hair, whether he’d ever been in handcuffs and his favorite member of One Direction.

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Never has politics been so blended with entertainment.

Contentious presidential debates help drive larger audiences than most new fall series; candidates are eager to take part in sketches on late-night TV and strive to be hip to pop-culture references, to sprinkle catch-phrases into their tweets and to reveal their music playlists; and celebrity surrogates are as polarizing as the candidates themselves.

It’s a climate in which celebrity status seems to translate into political clout, and in which level of exposure is scrutinized as much as polling numbers.

A carnival atmosphere has always surrounded presidential campaigns, but the mix of pop with politics has become serious business that translates to awareness, attention and adulation.

He countered with shtick — a break-all-the-rules strategy in which all publicity is good publicity.

In the first Republican debate, when Megyn Kelly asked him about his treatment of women, his first instinct wasn’t to attack the question or Kelly (although he eventually did) but to get in a nasty one-liner about Rosie O’Donnell.

Mark Mc Kinnon, political consultant and co-creator of Showtime’s “The Circus,” which documents the ongoing campaign, says Americans are looking to be entertained as well as informed.

“So to break through the clutter,” he says, “the candidates are compelled to look to nontraditional venues and formats to communicate their message.

Media Quant, an analytics firm, drew headlines last month when it calculated Donald Trump’s “earned media” output — a dollar amount tied to the free exposure he has gotten from countless interviews, magazine covers, talk-show skits and morning-show call-in interviews.

The tally was .4 billion — more than the combined total for Hillary Clinton (7 million), Ted Cruz (2 million) and Sanders (0 million).

By another measurement — exposure across hundreds of consumer publications — Trump and Clinton beat sports stars like Tom Brady and celebrities like Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber when it comes to the value of their “earned” media, according to Media Quant.