All of a sudden, we have to take Mike Bloomberg's presidential candidacy seriously.
Just how seriously remains to be seen: He isn't on the ballot for Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, so he hasn't had to face voters quite yet. But with former Vice President Joe Biden's candidacy looking iffy, and with a sense of alarm growing among Democratic activists, the former mayor of New York City is starting to seem plausible. A new Quinnipiac poll on Monday showed him "surging" into third place among Democratic candidates — and into second place with African-American voters who had been supporting Biden. It is time to earnestly consider the possibility that Bloomberg will be the Democratic nominee for president.
What a weird election year this is turning out to be.
Bloomberg still has to prove himself, of course. He hasn't really tangled with fellow Democratic candidates, and there is a certain "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" quality to his decision to mostly eschew the usual face-to-face campaigning that most candidates endure during the primaries, choosing instead to spend a lot of money — his own money — on TV ads in the Super Tuesday states.
What are we to make of Bloomberg's ascent? There are several possible conclusions:
1. Parties don't matter anymore. Ronald Reagan used to explain his midlife conversion from the Democratic Party to the GOP by announcing that he hadn't left Democrats — they had left him. These days, it isn't certain that anybody would care. Donald Trump became the GOP nominee in 2016 mostly out of convenience; he had spent a lifetime writing contribution checks to Hillary Clinton, pronouncing his support for abortion rights, and generally living the kind of New York libertine lifestyle that doesn't always play well in Republican-red precincts of "real" America. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came close to knocking off Clinton during that year's primaries, and is a frontrunner to win the nomination this year — and he isn't even a member of the Democratic Party.
Similarly, Bloomberg's political allegiances have ebbed and flowed depending on what was advantageous to him: He was a Democrat until deciding to run for mayor in 2001, when he registered as a Republican. He re-registered as an independent after a few years, then became a Democrat again in 2018. It was once the case that a presidential nomination had to be earned, in part, by years and decades of building up relationships within the party. Not anymore.
2. Money matters a whole lot. Back in December, my colleague Bonnie Kristian pointed to the then-piddling performances of billionaires Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, and proclaimed that "money doesn't matter much in politics." It seemed like a good argument at the time. But a big factor in Bloomberg's rise — perhaps the biggest — is the sheer amount of cash he is dropping. He has spent $250 million on TV and radio ads, and as much as $50 million on digital ad spending.
But money can't be the only factor in Bloomberg's rise, although Steyer's moneybomb in South Carolina seems to be making a difference in that state. Bloomberg's ads focus on bashing the one candidate that all Democrats are united against: Trump himself. For many party activists, that's far more satisfying than watching Dems beat up other Dems in the quest for a few extra convention delegates. And Bloomberg has been a known quantity in national political circles for nearly two decades now, presiding over the nation's biggest city during a relatively tranquil era, when crime and debt weren't its defining qualities. He starts out with a presumption of competence and plausibility that money alone can't buy.
3. But Sanders may make a Bloomberg presidency impossible. The rationale for Sanders' candidacy, of course, is that billionaires and corporations distort American self-governance by flooding the zone with their money and influencing the country's institutions to act on behalf of the wealthy instead of regular citizens with smaller bank accounts. Bloomberg may have entered the 2020 race long after Sanders, but Bloomberg's candidacy — and quick ascent past lesser-funded rivals — is the reason that Sanders is running. It is difficult to see Sanders' (ahem) passionate voters backing Bloomberg in a general election merely for the sake of beating Trump.
For all his newfound support from African-American voters, Bloomberg will probably also find that his mayoral support of "stop-and-frisk" policing tactics continues to haunt him. And at the moment, it is also far easier to define Bloomberg by his money and what he's against — Trump, mainly — than what he is for. Can you describe any element of the "Bloomberg for president" platform? What's more, we haven't really seen how he will fare on a Democratic debate stage. At some point, Bloomberg is going to have to actually face both the voters and his campaign rivals.
Despite those shortcomings, it is clearly time to pay attention to Bloomberg's presidential candidacy. Money has bought him enough attention to move him into the top ranks of contenders. Will it be enough to buy him the love of Democrats — or general election voters?
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