By Dan Balz / The Washington Post
CONCORD, N.H. — Michael Bloomberg was not the talk of New Hampshire on Friday.
Robert Pauwels, an undecided independent voter, was waiting for former Vice President Joe Biden to appear at a town hall in Franklin that evening. Asked about Bloomberg, he shrugged. “I don’t think he has a chance,” he said.
Others who had turned out to see candidates in the Granite State were similarly unenthusiastic in their reactions to the news that the billionaire and former mayor of New York plans to seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
A woman in Franklin called the decision “ridiculous” and said she thought it was prompted by a desire to “interfere with the process.” In Stratham, a man wearing a badge supporting South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg scoffed. Bloomberg wouldn’t draw enough support to become even a spoiler in the nomination battle, he said.
In Concord, Biden offered gracious words for Bloomberg after filing for next year’s primary but left no doubt he’s ready for the competition: “Michael’s a solid guy and let’s see where it goes. I have no problems with him being in the race.” He was quick to add, “The last polls I looked at, I’m pretty far ahead.
Buttigieg, in a brief Saturday morning interview before continuing his bus tour of the state, said the voters he’s been talking to are in the process of looking at the existing field and trying to narrow it down, albeit they are focused on “which one of us is best to beat Donald Trump.” As for a hunger for someone new to join the race, Buttigieg said, “That’s not something I’ve heard from voters.”
All the early reactions might be premature, given the fluidity in the Democratic race. Bloomberg’s apparent decision to run for president has for now sharpened the discussion about the qualities of the current candidates and the party’s prospects in November 2020.
A Bloomberg entry is seen both as a vote of no confidence in Biden and as evidence that the donor wing of the party, or the moderate wing of the party, or the establishment wing of the party is truly terrified that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has gained the upper hand in the nomination contest.
The unsettled nature of the Democratic nomination campaign has left many Democrats wondering whether any of their candidates can go the distance. That’s the ground on which Bloomberg is building his candidacy — the deep-seated fear that Trump, for all his problems, may be more than equal to the task of winning a second term.
At the same time, many Democrats with long experience in presidential politics are baffled by Bloomberg’s decision. Oh, they know he has long wanted to be president, that he looked at it seriously in several recent cycles, only to pull back and conclude that he couldn’t win, and for Bloomberg, winning is the thing he wants.
Almost every attribute Bloomberg brings to the campaign is already spoken for by the current field. A mayor? There’s Buttigieg or former Newark mayor Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., or former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro. A moderate? Well, there’s Biden and Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and …
He’s a billionaire willing to spend a fortune. So is Tom Steyer. He is a septuagenarian, if people are looking for older candidates, but so are Biden, Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. He’s a successful business executive. Andrew Yang is a business success as well.
One of Bloomberg’s signature issues that might appeal to the Democratic base is gun control. Former congressman Beto O’Rourke made that his signature issue after the horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, calling for mandatory confiscation of assault weapons. He dropped out a week ago. Another of Bloomberg’s issues is climate change. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington based his whole campaign on that issue and he lasted only a few months before quitting the race.
Still, there is something about Bloomberg that draws outsized attention, and for reasons that go beyond his willingness to spend perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars on his campaign. He does have a record of success in business and in politics. He is admired for his competence and his leadership (and his philanthropy) by fellow mayors who have worked with him over the years.
Other Democrats are indebted to him for the money he has invested in campaigns. He has spent freely to push for action on climate change and to promote gun control legislation, including the dollars he poured into Virginia legislative races this fall that helped Democrats neutralize the National Rifle Association in the state where the NRA is headquartered.
Still, Democrats are puzzled by his decision, wondering just how and why he thinks that, at this relatively late date, he believes he can mount a successful campaign. They acknowledge that the team around him includes smart, tough, shrewd people. They know that Bloomberg and his team are data driven and will make decisions based on their best reading of what the numbers tell them.
They know that his money is a huge asset, even if he is attacked by Sanders and Warren for trying to buy an election. Warren responded to his entry with a welcome and an online calculator to show how much her wealth tax could cost Bloomberg. The answer: about $6 billion.
Bloomberg won’t run a conventional campaign. Beyond that, he’s looking to defy the odds in many ways. For example, nobody has gotten in this late and won. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who many Democrats thought had exactly the right attributes to take down then-President George W. Bush, tried a late entry in the early fall of 2003 and flopped.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee jumped into the 2008 Republican nomination campaign in the early fall of 2007. Some Republicans thought he was the new Ronald Reagan. Instead, with minimal effort, he got nowhere.
When he was Texas’ governor, Rick Perry waited until late summer of 2011 to announce his bid for the GOP nomination. The campaign of Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, set out to destroy his candidacy and succeeded within a few months.
Bloomberg plans to defy conventions in another way. He apparently has decided not to compete seriously in any of the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina (although it is not yet clear whether he will seek to qualify for the ballots in those states).
The Democratic Party chairs of Iowa and New Hampshire issued statements late Friday lamenting Bloomberg’s decision to bypass their events.
New Hampshire’s Ray Buckley said: “We are disappointed and frankly very surprised that any candidate would launch a campaign for the White House where their path doesn’t run through New Hampshire or any of the other early states.”
Iowa’s Troy Price said: “Iowa is one of the last places where retail politics and grass-roots organizing run strong, and our process — along with the other early states — makes candidates and their campaigns better prepared for a general election fight.”
Those two Democrats have particular concerns about the Bloomberg strategy. If successful, it could render the Iowa-New Hampshire hegemony at the front of the nominating process moot, something politicians in other states would be happy to see. But skipping the early states would mean Bloomberg could run for the nomination and rarely expose himself to direct questioning from voters.
Bloomberg is certainly taking a risk by skipping the early states. Rudy Giuliani, another former New York mayor, tried essentially that same strategy in 2008. He led the polls among Republicans for much of 2007 but never settled on how he wanted to navigate Iowa or New Hampshire. Instead, he pointed to Florida as his breakout state. With poor showings earlier, however, he had no momentum by the time of Florida. His candidacy sank there.
The 2020 calendar offers Bloomberg an option this time to try again. Super Tuesday comes days after the South Carolina primary, and it will be one of the biggest single delegate hauls in history. It could also cost a fortune to compete widely. Democrats who know the financial demands of these kinds of events say it could cost $100 million to mount a television campaign across that many states, which include California and Texas.
Another Democrat who has been through the recent cycles offered this cautionary note about the value of TV ads. Presidential nominations are not won simply with blanket television advertising. It’s much more about winning begetting winning and building on free media – which is to say the news coverage and the narratives that coverage produces.
Like others in the Democratic field, Bloomberg will bring assets and liabilities to the contest. But one of his first tasks will be to persuade Democratic voters that he truly has something unique to offer.