In recent months whenever I’ve talked with people about the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, I've gotten a look like there was an eyeball in the center of my forehead or an arm coming out of the top of my head. In a pair of previous columns, I laid out some of the context of this race and why we should expect the unexpected.
In my mind Joe Biden is still a fragile front-runner, with somewhere between a 40 and 50 percent chance of winning the nod. There are those who would bestow the title of front-runner on Bernie Sanders, who currently is polling in first place in both Iowa and New Hampshire. My hunch, however, is that he would have a hard time going the distance, for reasons I’ll get to in just a moment. My odds for Michael Bloomberg are in the 20-25 percent range, with the remaining 30-35 percent spread out between Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or someone else. To be clear, these aren’t shares of the vote, but chances to win. I know I’m bullish on Bloomberg; this is definitely a contrarian view, but one that might make some sense.
If you were going to conjure up a scenario for Bloomberg, it relates not to who Democrats want, but what Democrats want—and what they fear. The one common goal of Democrats this year is to unseat President Trump. Evicting Trump is more important to most Democrats than who actually moves in. About 60 percent of the Democratic Party just wants to hit the reset back to a pre-Trump status quo, while about 40 percent see Trump’s defeat not as an end but as the beginning of “fundamental change.”
This latter group is made up of a hybrid of progressivism and populism. It is not the conventional liberalism of Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry. It has more than a touch of Huey Long: The little guy and gal are getting screwed by the rich and the powerful in every day and in every way. We need to fundamentally change, this group believes, the way our political process works and reorder capitalism to level the playing field.
With that in mind, let’s note that while the progressive wing has not consolidated behind Sanders, he is the one with the mojo in this race, running a pretty strong second place behind Biden in national polling. If Sanders comes out of the gate like gangbusters in the first two states, which then weakens Biden in Nevada and South Carolina, that opens up a breach for Bloomberg to step into.
What’s more, the pros tell us that competing in the 14 states holding primaries on Super Tuesday, including California and Texas, will cost a minimum of $100 million. Sanders, whose fundraising has gone better than any of the other major contenders in February states, might be able to raise enough to spend that. Biden, whose strength has never been raising money, sure can’t.
Bloomberg can. He’s said he would put $1 billion into a campaign, but does anyone think, if he was getting any traction, that he would stop there? A decent guess is that $2 billion would be fairly realistic under the right circumstances. Put that into context. According to the Federal Election Commission, all of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates combined spent $1.5 billion in 2016, $1.4 billion in 2012, $1.6 billion in 2008, and $2.3 billion in 2004. As of Monday, Advertising Analytics reports that Bloomberg had spent $273 million on broadcast and cable advertising already, mostly in the March primary states. His buy gets bigger every week, and there are still about five weeks to go before Super Tuesday.
The case against Bloomberg—that Democrats will never nominate him—seems predicated on two things. First, that one cannot win a party nomination without strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, preferably winning both but at least one of the two. No one has won a nomination in the last half century without doing so. But those states have become important because they allow a candidate to attract media coverage, gain name recognition, and raise money.
If a candidate is worth $60 billion, and not accepting contributions, why is competing in those states still mandatory, especially when he got in too late to do the retail campaigning required in those states?
The second is the “no Wall Street billionaires allowed” argument. While it is safe to say the progressive wing isn’t thrilled by it, for the 60 percent who just want to beat Trump and aren’t crazy about going far left anyway, it doesn’t seem like such a deal-breaker.
The profile of Bloomberg voters is that they’re 50 or older, college-educated, and somewhat centrist. Well, you have just defined the supporters of Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar as well. If none of those three are thriving, what do you think will happen?