Politics

A Bloomberg Presidential Campaign Would Likely Be a Costly Folly

Did you hear the one about Michael Bloomberg’s plan to win the Democratic Presidential nomination? He’s going to skip the first four primaries and caucuses—in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—then come storming through on Super Tuesday, March 3th, when fourteen more states will go to the polls, including three biggies: California, Texas, and North Carolina. A week later, the billionaire former New York City mayor will steamroll his way through more states, including Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, giving him unstoppable momentum as he heads for a general-election battle with Donald Trump.

Actually, it isn’t a joke—or not an intentional one. On Friday, a day after letting the Times know that he is seriously considering entering the Presidential race, Bloomberg’s aides provided a few more details about his putative bid. Howard Wolfson, a Bloomberg adviser who also worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, told the Washington Post’s Michael Scherer that the seventy-seven-year old Bloomberg would beg off the first four contests. “If we run, we are confident we can win in states voting on Super Tuesday and beyond, where we will start on an even footing,” Wolfson said.

If Trump’s rise to the Presidency taught us anything, it’s that today’s febrile political environment should make us cautious about ruling anything out. With a reported net worth of more than fifty billion dollars and a résumé that includes serving three terms as New York’s mayor and donating billions of dollars as a philanthropist, Bloomberg has plenty of money and name recognition. In recent years, he has built up a national political operation, which, until now, has been focussed on getting other Democrats elected, supporting gun-control efforts, and advocating measures to tackle climate change.

But, even allowing for all these things, it is difficult to see how a Bloomberg Presidential bid would be anything other than a costly folly. Simply put, he’s not very popular with ordinary Democrats. He’s an ex-Republican billionaire in a party that has embraced the language of class conflict, and a fiscal conservative in an era when other Democratic candidates are vying to outspend each other. He also has some political and personal baggage that would be exposed in a Presidential campaign, such as his support for stop-and-frisk policies when he was mayor and long-standing allegations of misogyny involving him and his company. And despite Wolfson’s claim that Bloomberg can overcome the primary calendar, it remains a big obstacle to victory.

Just last week, pollsters from Fox News asked a sample of people intending to vote in the Democratic primary how they would react if Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Bloomberg entered the race. Half said they would definitely vote for Obama, twenty-seven per cent said they would definitely vote for Clinton, and six per cent said they would definitely vote for Bloomberg. Actually, six per cent may overstate Bloomberg’s potential pool of supporters. Nathaniel Rakich, of FiveThirtyEight, notes that Bloomberg “was generally registering around 2 or 3 percent in national primary polls before first taking his name out of consideration in March.”

The fifty-per-cent figure for Michelle Obama in the Fox News poll might appear to suggest that Democrats aren’t content with the Party’s current field of candidates, but it was almost certainly more of a reflection of her personal popularity. In a recent YouGov/HuffPost poll, eighty-three per cent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning respondents said they were satisfied with the 2020 field. Just eight per cent said that they were dissatisfied, while three per cent were upset. Other polls have found similar results.

The three front-runners—Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders—all publicly acknowledged the news that Bloomberg might be joining the race. For The Atlantic, Peter Beinart pointed out that that the plutocratic ex-mayor could serve as a useful foil for Warren, who is targeting billionaires for hefty tax increases. The same could be true for Sanders, who has enjoyed a rise in the polls since suffering a heart attack and receiving the endorsement of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. By entering the race, Bloomberg would be “empowering the very forces that he means to thwart,” Beinart noted.

The thinking behind Bloomberg’s proto-campaign appears to be that he can pick up support from disenchanted Biden supporters and emerge as the candidate of moderate Democrats who worry that neither Warren nor Sanders can beat Trump. “If Biden continues to slip, that’s where Bloomberg can show his heels,” William Cunningham, a former political adviser to Bloomberg, said on NY1, on Friday. That could be wishful thinking, though. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden’s support has held reasonably steady at the national level since July. He has dropped back significantly in Iowa and New Hampshire, but still appears to have big leads in Nevada and South Carolina, which will be the third and fourth states, respectively, to vote in the primaries.

Even if Biden’s campaign were to crater, it is far from obvious that his supporters—many of whom are members of minority groups, unionized workers, or middle-class whites—would shift their loyalties to a Wall Street billionaire rather than to one of the other more moderate Democratic candidates, such as Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, or Amy Klobuchar. In response to objections like these, Bloomberg’s supporters, such as Cunningham, point to the former mayor’s immense potential campaign war chest, saying that it would enable him to bombard with political advertisements places that other candidates are ignoring because they are concentrating on the early primary states. “He can be talking to the entire country, region after region,” Cunningham said. An unnamed Bloomberg source told Axios, “Mike will spend whatever it takes to defeat Donald Trump. The nation is about to see a very different campaign than we’ve ever seen before.”

But how plausible is this idea? For the next three and a half months, the Democratic primary campaign will be centered on Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. If Bloomberg ducks out of these contests and disappears from the news, why should voters in places like Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—all Super Tuesday states—take any notice of his political ads, however often they appear? He could try holding Trump-style rallies, but how many people would show up?

As Tom Steyer, another billionaire, has discovered since entering the Presidential race, in July, great riches and a history of supporting Democratic causes don’t necessarily translate into success in a Democratic primary. In the RealClearPolitics poll average, Steyer stands at 0.9 per cent. If Bloomberg gets in, he might do better than that, but launching a campaign would still be a long shot. On the other hand, he has been eyeing a Presidential bid for more than a decade, and he knows this is his last chance.

Although he is a former Wall Street trader, Bloomberg isn’t known for taking reckless gambles. When I wrote a long magazine piece about him, back in 2005, I discovered that, as mayor, he prided himself on making data-driven decisions that weren’t freighted by emotion or ideology. Even now, his aides have been careful to say that he is still considering the 2020 situation and hasn’t made a final call. My guess is that when he does, he’ll reaffirm the decision he made in March and stay out. But we’ll have to wait and see.




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