Bloomberg bets old rules of politics no longer apply. He may be right.

Harry Bruinius

Just a month ago, most political observers believed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination for president were decidedly not very good.

The New York billionaire announced his candidacy too late to get his name on the ballots of the first four states. And in the modern era, no candidate – Republican or Democrat – has won their party’s nomination without placing at least 2nd in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Bill Clinton was the only candidate to capture the nomination without winning at least one of the two.

But Mayor Bloomberg believes he can do what has never been done before. Perceiving a political landscape radically altered by the plate tectonics of digital media and targeted messaging – as well as Democratic voters’ growing antipathy toward the influence of two overwhelmingly white states – he saw a path that didn’t involve glad-handing in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms.

In some ways, Mr. Bloomberg is running both a stealth and carpet-bomb campaign. Until recently, he’s been deemphasizing retail politics, instead communicating with voters via targeted online ads, YouTube videos, and traditional television spots that are blanketing both national and local airwaves – especially in the 14 states participating in next month’s mammoth Super Tuesday vote.

And it may be working. Even as New Hampshire voters were confirming Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg as the early Democratic front-runners on Tuesday, the three-term mayor from New York vaulted to third place in national polls.

Mr. Bloomberg’s late-entry gambit has proven particularly prescient on two fronts: It presumed a collapse by former Vice President Joe Biden, whose campaign is now on the ropes after poor results in Iowa and New Hampshire. It also banked on Senator Sanders – whom many Democratic voters believe is too liberal to beat President Donald Trump – emerging as an early front-runner.

Still, Mr. Bloomberg faces a number of hurdles. Critics accuse the billionaire of trying to buy the nomination, and argue the former Republican is an unlikely standard-bearer for a party that has been shifting left. His most glaring weakness may be the legacy of New York’s stop-and-frisk police tactic, which a federal judge ruled racially biased and unconstitutional near the end of his three-term tenure. 

The former mayor will not appear on ballots in the South Carolina primary later this month, in which African-American voters will have their first significant say in the race for the Democratic nomination. But his campaign believes he will emerge as a serious force on Super Tuesday, when nearly a third of the overall delegates to the convention will be awarded in a single day. 

Even if he doesn’t win the nomination, experts say the success he’s already demonstrated reveals how much presidential politics are changing. Four years ago, another wealthy New Yorker, Donald Trump, also confounded experts as he dispensed with various traditions of presidential politics, harnessing the boundless digital worlds of social media and the wizardry of precision data and targeted online ads. 

“Between the both of them, what I think they’re doing is demonstrating the end of traditional political organizations as we know them,” says Ken Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York.

A $2 billion campaign

What makes all this possible, of course, is money. The world’s 13th richest man, Mr. Bloomberg appears ready to spend at least $2 billion of his personal fortune on this electoral strategy, some news reports say. His paid campaign staff is already three times larger than that of Mr. Trump, five times larger than that of Mr. Biden, and twice that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, according to Axios

Last week, after the Iowa caucuses became a national punchline, the Bloomberg campaign pounced, announcing it would double its current advertising efforts, which already topped $350 million, expand the messaging to new markets, and hire more paid staff in 40 states.     

“While other campaigns have been focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, our campaign has been building a massive operation in some of the biggest battleground states across the country that is unmatched and will be critical to defeating Trump in November,” says Sabrina Singh, senior national spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign. Indeed, the campaign is building an infrastructure and operation parallel to – and perhaps larger than – the Democratic Party’s own national organization. 

“What’s so unprecedented is the amount of money Bloomberg can spend without needing the party,” says Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. “The purpose of political parties is to give you institutional support, and when you no longer need that support, you have to wonder, what is the role of the party?”

It’s all indicative of larger structural changes that have been reshaping American politics over the past decade, says Robert Boatright, professor and chair of the department of political science at Clark University. He points to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which found that political spending is a form of protected speech under the Constitution, and lifted limits on spending by corporations and unions.   

“While Bloomberg’s strategy is kind of novel – skipping the first few states – the emergence of his candidacy isn’t,” Professor Boatright says. “The ability of both the Democratic and Republican parties to confer the nomination in an organized way has been destroyed by the Citizens United decision and by the declining use of public funding in presidential elections.”  

Just a few wealthy super PAC donors were able to boost Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 who wouldn’t have made it off the ground in previous cycles, he says. And while most Democratic candidates have spoken out against Citizens United and eschewed the use of super PACs, “instead we get people like [Tom] Steyer and Bloomberg, who are financing themselves,” Professor Boatright says.

Others note that Mr. Bloomberg has committed to keeping his resources on the ground, even if he’s not the nominee. “So regardless of where he ends up in the nominating process, he’s going to have an impact,” says Mara Suttmann-Lea, professor of government at Connecticut College. 

Stop-and-frisk

Unlike President Trump’s made-for-TV showmanship, Mr. Bloomberg projects a kind of technocratic competence that, at least so far, has skated above the rancorous ideological conflicts now raging in American politics. And as top-tier Democratic candidates increasingly attack one another, the former mayor has been focusing his barbs exclusively on the president, as if adapting Ronald Reagan’s famous 11th commandment to read: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Democrat.”    

As he’s risen in the polls, however, he’s inevitably attracting more scrutiny. An audio recording of Mr. Bloomberg discussing the stop-and-frisk policy in 2015, posted online this week by a supporter of Senator Sanders, may be a sign of what’s to come.

When he announced his candidacy in November, Mr. Bloomberg apologized for the controversial tactic, saying it was wrong. But the recording presents a stark reminder of his once-adamant support for stop-and-frisk. 

“The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them,” Mr. Bloomberg says on the recording. “Murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. ... They are male, minorities, 16-25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city. ... You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of people that are getting killed.”

It remains to be seen whether the issue will dampen what has been a remarkable surge in national polls, particularly among black voters. In just over a month, Mr. Bloomberg tripled his support nationwide, including garnering the backing of 22% of black voters according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday. Mr. Biden, the top choice of black voters for months, dropped to 27% from 52% in Quinnipiac’s previous poll. 

“My gut feeling is that black voters in 2020 will take an approach towards Bloomberg in a way similar to some white Trump voters in 2016,” says Professor Greer. “It’s not a popular thing to say or to do, it’s not popular to say, ‘Oh, I’m supporting Bloomberg,’ but I think some black voters are just keeping quiet.”

Significantly, a number of powerful black mayors have endorsed Mr. Bloomberg. Muriel Bowser in Washington, D.C., Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California, Steve Benjamin in Columbia, South Carolina, Sylvester Turner in Houston, Texas, and Vi Lyles of Charlotte, North Carolina, have all thrown their support behind him. “I think that he realizes the mistake of the past,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who also endorsed Mayor Bloomberg, told NPR this week.

In an ad that began to run last week, the Bloomberg campaign invoked the legacy of President Barack Obama, showing a old clip of the popular former president praising the New York mayor. “It’s like a dagger in the heart for the Biden campaign,” says Professor Sherrill, who will be on a slate of New York City delegates supporting Mayor Buttigieg.

And while critics don’t see him generating the necessary enthusiasm among the Democratic base to defeat President Trump, others say Mr. Trump himself will provide enough motivation. 

“The ultimate uniter of the Republican Party in 2016 was beating Hillary Clinton,” says Kent Syler, professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University. “The ultimate uniter of the Democrats this time will be beating Donald Trump.”

Either way, Professor Greer notes that many of her students seem to be talking about Mr. Bloomberg. They’ve all been exposed to a steady stream of Bloomberg campaign ads on YouTube. Indeed, her 8-year-old niece can recite a Bloomberg ad “verbatim.”

“Something is happening,” she says. “He’s resonating with people.”

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