Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. | Yana Paskova/Getty Images
Yes, say the political strategists around former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the notion of him becoming the Democratic presidential nominee requires many unprecedented and highly speculative factors falling into place just so.
No, these strategists insist, the billionaire media titan and philanthropist is not crazy, and neither are they.
The evidence for the alleged non-craziness is based on polling, an emphatically low regard for the current field of Democratic candidates, and an emphatically high regard for Bloomberg’s purported assets. These include a compelling life story, a record of accomplishment as mayor, credibility with activists on gun control and climate change, and an ability to nationalize the race this coming winter and early spring with a historic torrent of money and messaging.
What Bloomberg contemplates is not so much an exercise in threading the political needle as pulverizing that needle as it has existed for decades.
“We’re just going to rewrite a new system,” said Kevin Sheekey, a senior Bloomberg strategist.
“Our theory of the case is that we’re going to skip the first four early states and we’re going to run as intensive a campaign” in other Democratic states as rivals do in Iowa and New Hampshire. That plan kicks in with the March 3 run of Super Tuesday states, but won’t stop there.
“We’re going to do it all across the country,” Sheekey said.
In background briefings, Bloomberg operatives defend this strategy in ways that makes logical sense as an abstraction but requires suspension of disbelief about numerous practical factors that are largely outside his control:
— That the contest will remain muddled and fluid until the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries (the first time Bloomberg’s name will be on the ballot), even though historically the early states have clarified the race and created frontrunners in ways that offered no path to late entrants.
— That Bloomberg’s argument that he’s best-positioned to beat President Donald Trump will be compelling eventually to African-Americans and women, even though he starts the race with gaping challenges with these groups.
— That the narrative advanced by liberal pundits, that Democrats in 2020 urgently want a more progressive agenda and a more demographically diverse nominee, is wrong — even though this is precisely what has powered Elizabeth Warren’s campaign so far.
Here is a breakdown of four key strategic assumptions of Bloomberg’s nascent campaign, along with some “yes but” analysis about why those assumptions might be wobbly. Probably there is no individual Bloomberg assumption that is wildly implausible. But it is the number of assumptions that must come together at once that make this for now a low-probability endeavor.
Assumption: Bloomberg’s rivals are losers
There’s no nice way to put it. Bloomberg operatives say he made a decision months ago not to run for president in 2020, and in recent weeks reversed course because of public and private polls that he believes shows the people currently atop the Democratic field are suffering from potentially fatal political defects.
Under the current trajectory of the race, Bloomberg’s team believes Warren is the likely nominee. By this reckoning, former Vice President Joe Biden simply has not been commanding enough in debates and other venues to inspire confidence among Democratic voters. Bloomberg aides believe even his support from African-Americans may turn to mush in the event — entirely possible under current polling — that he barely registers in the Iowa caucuses and performs limply in the New Hampshire primary.
At the same time, the assumption is that South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is riding high in Iowa largely because he has devoted so much personal time there. It’s an investment that may pay off with a victory there, the thinking goes, but won’t translate into national gains as Democratic voters conclude at age 37 he is too young and inexperienced to actually win.
Bloomberg aides say the former mayor likes and respects Warren personally, and is not bothered by the effect of her wealth tax proposals on his own fortune. The problem, they believe, is that she made a critical strategic error by deciding no rival would get to her left, and in the course embraced a “Medicare for All” plan in which private insurance would be banned. The plan is losing popularity among Democrats, and many party officials share Bloomberg’s belief that the plan could be her undoing in a general election.
“We did a poll, it was the exact same poll that the New York Times did — it overlapped by a few days — and it had Elizabeth Warren losing not one swing state but six swing states,” one of Bloomberg’s advisers said, listing the states as Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona. “If the election was held today, with her [running] against Trump, he wins all six” states, the person added.
Bloomberg aides say they are helped by Democratic voters’ eagerness to put head before heart in 2020. His recent polling has shown that 85 percent of Democrats rank perceived ability to beat Trump as a top concern, a number that has spiked 40 points or so since the impeachment drama got underway in September
These aides don’t disguise their hope that Warren will do well enough to serve as a foil but not so well that she is the prohibitive favorite by March 3. They want Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders to each keep enough support that the battle for the Democratic left remains a stalemate.
Yes, but: There are a lot of questionable assertions in the Bloomberg team’s appraisal of the race. Is it really so clear that Biden is spiraling downward? A new national Quinnipiac poll showed he just retook the lead while Warren lost half her support, dropping to third place. Journalists have been quoting Democratic chattering-class types for months about his alleged defects, but he continues to perform well in national polls and his support among African-Americans especially has proven durable. The primary is littered with candidates mired in single digits in the polls because they anticipated a Biden collapse that never came.
What’s more, primary candidates often look weak as general election contenders at this stage in the calendar. Historically, early victories have transformed how they are perceived by the electorate. The assertion that 2020 will be different is a wish by Bloomberg’s team but so far it is only that. In addition, women voters especially will remember that “too liberal, hurting our chances of victory” was also the rap against Nancy Pelosi, who led Democrats to take back the House in 2018.
Assumption: Bloomberg has a wide open country to portray himself as a winner
While the alleged losers are strapped down doing their thing in Iowa ( Feb. 3), New Hampshire ( Feb. 11), Nevada ( Feb. 22) and South Carolina ( Feb. 29), the man who ducked those contests is ready to spend hundreds of millions on ads and campaign turnout apparatus in Super Tuesday’s 15 states, plus more than a dozen other states and territories later in March.
It can’t be emphasized enough how unusual this strategy is. Successful nominating strategies have always started with early small-state victories, and then gone national. If one was going to try a different national-first strategy, it would help to have a self-funded campaign backed by a fortune (estimated $54 billion) that is several dozen times larger than Trump’s.
Yes, but: There may be goo