Mike Bloomberg qualifies for next two debates, trails only Sanders in recent poll

William Cummings, USA TODAY

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has qualified to participate in his first Democratic presidential debate, after an NPR/PBS/NewsHour/Marist poll released Tuesday found him in second place behind Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

That national poll found Sanders leading the pack as the choice of 31% of Democratic voters, and independent voters who lean Democratic, giving the senator from Vermont a 12 percentage point advantage over Bloomberg, who came in second at 19%. Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose drop in recent polling has accompanied Bloomberg's rise, was third at 15%. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was fourth at 12%, followed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (9%), and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (8%). The rest of the Democratic hopefuls came in at 2% or less. 

It was the fourth national poll to find Bloomberg with 10% or more support, making him eligible to make his Democratic debate debut Wednesday in Las Vegas. Joining the billionaire media mogul on the stage will be Sanders, Biden, Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg. 

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Though Bloomberg made the Nevada debate, he won't be on the ballot for that state's caucuses on Saturday. Bloomberg, who made a late entry into the race in November, has adopted an unconventional campaign strategy of skipping the first four contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, to focus on performing well on March 3 – the day known as Super Tuesday, when a third of the state delegates needed to win the nomination are up for grabs in 16 contests.

Bloomberg's unconventional approach, which has been accompanied by a massive national advertising blitz, appears to be paying dividends. The new NPR/PBS/Marist poll reflected an impressive 9-point jump for Sanders over the previous survey, which was released in December. But in the same time period, Bloomberg surged by 15 percentage points. 

Biden led in that previous NPR/PBS/Marist poll, as he did in most surveys through mid-January. But he slipped from nine-points to fall behind Bloomberg. Warren and Buttigieg each had a 5-point slide from their numbers in December, while Klobuchar saw a 5-point bump. 

An NBC/WSJ poll released Tuesday evening has Bloomberg polling at 14%, which also qualifies him for next week's South Carolina Democratic debate ahead of the primary in that state.

Sanders leads that poll at 27%, which is unchanged from January’s NBC News/WSJ survey.

The Democratic National Committee recently changed its rules for how a candidate qualifies for the debate, opening the door for Bloomberg to be on stage and drawing the ire of some candidates who dropped out of the race after failing to make earlier debates. Candidates were previously required to receive a certain number of campaign contributions to qualify, but Bloomberg, who is worth an estimated $60 billion, is not taking donations.

Many of Bloomberg's Democratic rivals have accused him of trying to buy the nomination with his $300 million ad purchases. And critics say he has not had to come under the same scrutiny as the other candidates. But Biden said he hopes to change that when Bloomberg takes the debate stage. 

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"I'm going to get a chance to debate him on everything from redlining to stop-and-frisk to a whole range of other things," Biden said last week on ABC's "The View."

Bloomberg's past support for the stop-and-frisk tactic of the New York Police Department, which led officers to disproportionately search young men of color, has led some to question whether he can win the support of African-American voters, a key Democratic voting bloc.

Audio of comments Bloomberg made in 2015 defending the practice – in which has says 95% of murders are committed by young minority males – recently resurfaced, breathing new life into the controversy amid the former mayor's rise in the polls. The Associated Press also reported last week on comments he made in 2008 blaming the housing crisis on the end of "redlining," the practice of banks not loaning to people in poor, often minority, neighborhoods. 

Biden has pinned much of his hopes for a resurgence, after his poor performances in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, on the support of African-American voters. But the NPR/PBS/Marist poll (conducted after the reports on his stop-and-frisk and redlining comments) found Bloomberg was the choice of 16% of African-American Democratic voters, trailing only Biden (31%) and Sanders (28%). 

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Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist and the favorite of 46% of the Democratic Party's progressive voters, according to the poll (Warren was second at 19%). Biden was the leading alternative to Sanders for moderates in the December poll at 31%. But Tuesday's poll shows Bloomberg now as the top choice of moderate Democrats at 29%, followed by Biden at 23%. 

A new poll on an important Super Tuesday state released also reflects Bloomberg's rise. 

Likely Democratic voters in Virginia's March 3 primary named Sanders and Bloomberg as their top picks to take on President Donald Trump in November at 22% each. Biden was third at 18%, according to a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday. Among the Democratic black voters Biden is counting on, he had a commanding lead in Virginia at 37%, followed by Sanders and Bloomberg who both tied at 18%. 

But only a quarter of those voters say their choice of a candidate is firmly set. Another 18% told the pollsters there was a high chance they would change their mind on or before Election Day, 34% said there was a moderate chance and 10% said they might change their mind but the chance was low. 

"Virginia provides an interesting test on Super Tuesday. A wide range of candidates appeal to voters here and it is very much a jump ball at this point," said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

The Monmouth University poll was conducted from Feb. 13-16 with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points. The NPR/PBS/Marist poll was conducted from Feb. 13-16 with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.4 percentage points among Democratic voters and independents who lean Democratic. 

Contributing: The Associated Press, Savannah Behrmann

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mike Bloomberg to be in next Democratic debate with Sanders, Biden