Could Mike Bloomberg capture the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination? I’ve ridiculed the possibility in the past, and with good reason: Bloomberg has taken stances that are anathema to progressives, and I’m not talking about his cheerleading for capitalism or the way he personifies Wall Street lucre like a walking Monopoly Man. He also waited far too late to enter the race and blithely skipped the early states.
Nate Silver’s forecasting model at FiveThirtyEight gives Bloomberg a less than 1 percent shot at the nomination. But betting markets disagree: As the degree of Joe Biden’s failure in Iowa became apparent, Bloomberg’s prospects surged. At PredictIt.org, for instance, Bernie Sanders is the heavy favorite, selling at 43 cents for a potential payoff of a dollar. Bloomberg runs a strong second, at 23 cents. Biden is in fourth place, at a pathetic 14 cents. Bettors appear to be envisioning Ramesh Ponnuru’s scenario: Should Biden collapse and leave a clear path to victory for Sanders, those Democrats who do not daydream about November suicide will be looking for a moderate to back. Bloomberg would appear to be a more plausible contender for that role than Pete Buttigieg, with his student-council earnestness and thin résumé. What’s more, the former New York City mayor would be self-funding.
There are three big reasons Bloomberg could stage a last-minute rally and make a serious bid for the nomination.
One: In the Ponnuru scenario, the Democrats could use every trick in the book, or indeed rewrite the book, to stop Sanders. Step forward, superdelegates! Hail, change in debate rules! The downside risk of this is a replay of the 1968 Chicago convention chaos, this time in Milwaukee. But it’s not like even the Bolshiest of Bernie Bros are going to stay home on November 3 if their choice is between a capitalist Democrat and Donald Trump, and the party knows this.
Two: Given Biden’s continual struggles and Elizabeth Warren’s rapid fade, the race could narrow to a Sanders–Bloomberg contest quickly if Buttigieg’s momentum were to stall. Some of Warren’s fans among technocrats and the highly educated will even defect to Bloomberg, on the grounds that he’s the sort of managerial-class mandarin they feel an affinity with. (Warren’s anti-capitalist rhetoric is, I think, seen as merely performative by a significant percentage of her devotees.)
Three: Money. It’s preposterous how rich Bloomberg is. Because of the way his wealth is generated, via subscriptions to his eponymous financial-services terminals, it comes in faster than he can spend it. He could spend $5 billion on this race and emerge from it richer than he was when he entered. Last year, Forbes put his net worth at $55.5 billion; this year he’s at $61.7 billion. For comparison, saturation advertising for a blockbuster movie that everyone wants to see runs a studio about $50 million. No one knows what a Bloombergian level of advertising spending on a single idea might look like because it’s never been done before. And that’s not counting all the other ways money can be useful in a political campaign. As other candidates drop out of the race, Bloomberg will be able to buy up organizers and pollsters and canvassers and everybody else who wants a job in politics. He’ll be able to put them up at the Four Seasons, rent them Cadillac Escalades, and feed them so much lobster thermidor it’ll make Lego Batman envious. He’ll be able to buy up activists and agitators too. Last week he evidently bought a ticket to the Super Bowl for the Houston-area woman, an anti-gun activist, who also starred in the $11 million gun-control commercial he ran during the game. Bloomberg has so far steered clear of using his fortune to tear down fellow Democrats, but the most effective political ads are attacks. If it comes down to him vs. Sanders, a declared enemy of capitalism, will he continue to avoid going negative? And how well would Sanders hold up against $100 million in attack ads?
Even setting those factors aside, there’s an argument to be made that Sanders is so extreme that there must be a low ceiling on his potential support even within the Democratic Party. For all the outsize influence of the Extremely Online progressive base, there are a lot of Democrats farther to the right: After the 2018 midterms, in which the party retook control of the House, conservatives and moderates accounted for 52 percent of its members.
On the other hand, Bernie Bros (and maybe even Joe Biden) may take some comfort from knowing that they can pull out the Democratic Party’s favorite weapon at any time and beat Bloomberg over the head with it. As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg loudly defended a police stop-and-frisk policy that disproportionately affected black New Yorkers, who in many cases argued that they were being profiled and harassed. Bloomberg was not only insensitive to criticism, he suggested those who opposed his policy were idiots. “Incidentally, I think, we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” Bloomberg said in 2013. “It’s exactly the reverse of what they’re saying. I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course, or a logic course.” Bloomberg continued to defend the policy as recently as last year, even though crime continued to recede after the stop-and-frisk policy was all but eliminated. A single powerful ad in which a black New Yorker recalls the humiliation of being stopped and frisked for no good reason could be worth more than a billion dollars’ worth of Bloomberg’s spending.