The more I think about Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, the more I wonder whether the political cognoscenti are underestimating his chances of winning.
Do you know of a soul in the political or media worlds that is predicting he will win the party nod in Milwaukee? Most conversations about the Democratic race don’t seem to take his candidacy very seriously at all. While it is acknowledged that his candidacy and cascading campaign spending could affect the contest, the conversation centers pretty much around Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, or perhaps Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders. That may be misguided, given that:
- Bloomberg is a very smart guy who hires very talented campaign advisers.
- He’s won three elections in the largest city in the country.
- He’s worth, according to Forbes magazine, about $54.5 billion, making him the eighth richest person in America. He could drop $1 billion on the race.
When people argue that Bloomberg has no chance, here are the arguments that we hear: First, you can’t skip the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. (Just ask “President Giuliani,” who tried that back in 2008.) Second, he has problems among minority communities, thanks to his “stop and frisk” policies while mayor. Third, with the Democratic Party trending more progressive, a billionaire businessman would hardly seem an obvious standard-bearer.
Remember that the first four states are not about delegates. Out of 3,979 pledged delegates who can vote on a first ballot at the convention, only 155 (just under 4 percent) are picked in these February states.
The emphasis instead is on meeting or exceeding expectations, gaining media coverage, and building momentum, in part to raise money to compete in the remaining states and territories. After these four, it becomes about delegate math.
So how does Bloomberg fit in here? According to Advertising Analytics, Bloomberg is spending at least $50,000 on advertising in 100 television markets, blanketing not just the 14 states that hold primaries on Super Tuesday but also the remaining 11 states that vote in March. (More than 60 percent of all pledged delegates are chosen during March.) Advertising Analytics estimates that 74 percent of U.S. television viewers are covered in the markets that he has already bought. As of Monday afternoon, his spend was at $58.5 million, about one-tenth of 1 percent of his net worth.
The 15 Democratic candidates not named Bloomberg are bogged down by having to focus most of their time, money, and efforts in those four states with their paltry delegate totals. After all, only three or a maximum of four of them will survive the February gauntlet to even see Super Tuesday. Bloomberg doesn’t have to worry about leveraging expectations and momentum into media coverage and fundraising. It would be a pretty safe assumption that TV is the tip of the Bloomberg iceberg that we can see; there is plenty more going on underneath as well.
This hunt for delegates is more scientific than most people realize. Two-thirds of the delegates are picked at the congressional-district level, except in Texas, where it is by state Senate districts. Most districts elect between four and eight delegates. One-third are awarded statewide. With no winner-take-all primaries allowed in the Democratic Party, it is hard to build a lead but also very hard to overtake one.
Districts with an odd number of delegates are most valued. For an excellent tutorial on the Democratic delegate-selection process, spend 65 minutes listening to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, interviewing Jeff Berman, the delegate guru for both the Obama campaign in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, on the Campaign HQ podcast. While this was recorded before Bloomberg got in the race, it is hard to listen to it now and not see how Bloomberg could take advantage of it.
We hear that African-American voters, who represented 20 percent of Democratic primary voters in 2016, have a problem with Bloomberg, but don’t we also hear that about Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren? Cory Booker and Kamala Harris haven’t tapped into the African-American community much, either.
As for whether a billionaire businessman can win the nomination of a party that clearly is more progressive than it was when Bill Clinton was twice elected, it is also a party that wants to win, one that is showing a bit of pragmatism. Notice what happened to Warren after she stepped into the Medicare-for-all puddle? It sure seems that electability is trumping progressive values among more than a few Democrats.
While there are legitimate arguments to be made against Bloomberg, there are equally persuasive arguments against each of his rivals. If polling in the coming month or two shows that Bloomberg is as competitive against President Trump as Biden or any of the others, the conventional wisdom on him will change rapidly. As of late Monday afternoon, there wasn’t a single live-telephone-interview poll conducted entirely after his ads began. Watch after a couple of weeks of this. Electability means different things to different people. A candidate who consistently beats Trump in the polls and is self-funding, allowing party resources to go into holding the House and winning a Senate majority, could make for a pretty compelling case.