Can Michael Bloomberg Pull Democrats Back toward the Center?

Michael Bloomberg speaks in the Manhattan borough of New York, N.Y, May 30, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Bloomberg has a massive fortune and a solid case to make to voters. But his effort to stop Elizabeth Warren could easily backfire, handing her the nomination.

Days after reports emerged that former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was preparing to enter the Democratic presidential race, there was still one thing lacking from the orgy of speculation the news touched off: polling that showed he had a real chance of winning the party’s nomination. Yet that didn’t stop both Bloomberg’s potential rivals and many in the press from treating the prospect of his candidacy as a major event. He was denounced by many Democrats for thinking he could parachute into the contest after the field of candidates had spent months campaigning, debating, and thinning itself out. Even if he was a long shot at best to win the nomination, he was treated as a serious threat.

The main reason for this is Bloomberg’s money. With a net worth estimated by Forbes at $55.5 billion, he’s is ranked as the ninth-richest person in the world. He wouldn’t be the only billionaire in the race — Tom Steyer, with a mere $1.6 billion fortune, is also running. But Bloomberg has already shown in his three successful runs for New York City mayor that he’s willing to spend as much as it takes to win. In 2009, he spent an astounding $102 million to earn 585,466 votes and eke out a third term by a narrow 51 percent–to–46 percent margin. He could well afford the cost of a similar effort on a national scale, if he wanted to bear it.

That has brought down on his head a torrent of criticism from Democrats such as Bernie Sanders, who warned Bloomberg, “You ain’t going to buy this election.” Sanders is right. The presidency cannot be won without raising or possessing large sums of cash, but it can’t simply be bought. In order to win the nomination, Bloomberg would have to sell Democrats on the notion that his particular brand of politics not only is in line with their values and beliefs but also provides a formula that can defeat President Donald Trump.

Along those lines, Bloomberg’s argument is simple: He’s liberal enough on issues such as guns, abortion, and climate change to be a plausible nominee, and his fiscal centrism, governing experience, and reputation as a formidable entrepreneur and problem solver would make him stronger against Trump than any other candidate in the field.

Bloomberg previously toyed with the idea of running but announced in March that he would not. If he has changed his mind, it’s due to two factors: the perceived decline of Joe Biden and the rise of Elizabeth Warren.

If Bloomberg does run, the candidate who would be hurt the most by his entry would be Biden. While South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to be perceived as a moderate, the centrist lane in the Democratic race has belonged to the former vice president until now. But though he still leads in the national polls, his margin over his nearest competitors has shrunk. As an avatar of the Democratic establishment, he has been a piñata for his liberal critics, and his lackluster debate appearances and struggles in Iowa and New Hampshire have created a sense that his campaign is a sinking ship.

Meanwhile, after some early missteps, Warren has thrived on the campaign trail. Though she has stiff competition for liberal votes from Sanders and a host of other candidates, Warren’s combative style and wonkish appetite for big-government schemes has catapulted her into contention, with some pundits seeing her as the current odds-on favorite.

Warren’s stated desire for confiscatory taxes aimed at the wealthy scares the Democrats’ Wall Street contributors. But she also would seem to be the perfect candidate for Trump to run against, since the focus on her radicalism would distract the persuadable swing voters who will likely determine the general election from what they dislike about the president.

Biden would probably have the easiest time of any Democrat beating Trump in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But without someone like him on the top of the ticket, many in the party believe Trump will win. Bloomberg would seek to essentially replace the erratic former vice president as the centrist alternative to Warren or Sanders and coast to victory on the strength of his electability.

Just as important, the fiscally conservative Bloomberg might also run in a manner that would specifically appeal to the large number of Democratic-primary voters who are not enthusiastic about the massively expensive plans advanced by Warren and Sanders. Rather than directly challenge his party’s left wing, Biden has sought to co-opt it, downplaying his differences with those who want Medicare for all and a host of other expensive entitlement expansions. Bloomberg’s money would give him the ability to make the critique of the Left that a theoretical centrist alternative such as Senator Amy Kloubuchar would attempt if she could afford it.

So Bloomberg has a reason to think that there is both room in the race and a path to victory for him. But his potential problems are just as formidable as his assets.

At a time when the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar are treated as rock stars by the Democratic grassroots, the notion that Democrats are ready to embrace a billionaire who scorns the left-wing populism of Warren’s spending plans seems fantastical. Bloomberg also is vulnerable among a key Democratic constituency: African Americans. He will be blamed for New York City’s since-discarded stop-and-frisk policing strategy, which lowered crime but attracted allegations of racism. And allegations of sexist behavior and policies in his business career will also make him a tough sell with female primary voters.

Even putting those weaknesses aside, the main problem Bloomberg would face is that Biden isn’t likely to withdraw from the race anytime soon. If he runs, Bloomberg’s advisers have signaled that he’d ignore the early primary states and concentrate on the next tier of contests, where his money would have a greater impact than in Iowa and New Hampshire, which require heavy retail politicking. But Biden, who is trailing in both those states, is thinking along the same lines and is counting on strong support from African Americans to allow him to sweep through the South and ride the resulting momentum to the nomination, much as Barack Obama did in 2008 and Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

That means there is every likelihood that Bloomberg won’t be replacing Biden but competing against him for centrist votes, increasing the chances that Warren or Sanders will beat them both.

Bloomberg’s rivals are right to fear his fortune and his strengths as a candidate. But unless the field thins considerably in the coming months, it may be that Bloomberg’s entry into the Democratic field only hastens the outcome that centrists fear most.


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