Back in 2016, a wealthy New Yorker got into a crowded presidential race and was immediately dismissed. Virtually nobody actually liked the candidate, polls showed, and there were also questions about how serious he was about the whole thing. Then that candidate won.
Could it happen again in 2020?
The results of the Iowa caucuses have fed speculation that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg might actually have a shot at the Democratic nomination. He wasn’t on the ballot, mind you, but the results — with a democratic socialist senator and the young former mayor of a relatively small city finishing in the top two slots — seem to have cracked the door ajar to a wild card. Couple that with the “gut punch” suffered by the leading “establishment” candidate — Joe Biden’s fourth-place finish — and it’s not unreasonable to think a lane could open for Bloomberg.
It’s anything but likely, but it’s hardly the punchline it once was.
Let’s break it down. First is what happened in Iowa and what it means. It has been abundantly clear throughout this process that the Democratic Party is terrified — terrified — of picking the wrong candidate, only to see them lose to President Trump. Iowa Democrats liked Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg so much that they combined for more than half the vote, but it’s not difficult to see voters confronting the reality of those two actually facing Trump and, rightly or wrongly, suddenly getting skittish.
And that goes double now that Trump’s numbers are creeping up. There was a time when Democrats seemed to have the luxury of picking any number of hopefuls who would be favored against Trump, because they all led him in the polls. That’s not so clearly the case anymore. Trump’s approval rating has hit or tied new highs in several polls in recent weeks — including 49 percent in the latest Gallup poll — and the general election matchups are suddenly tight. In other words, a party that has long said electability is Priority No. 1 may move even further in that direction and really think hard about its options once the front-runners solidify.
The answer for those voters, throughout the race, has been consistent: Biden. But not only did he fare poorly in Iowa, he’s been an unsteady candidate. Biden is hardly sunk, but if the longtime top candidate in this race can’t notch a win in the first three contests before he gets to the South Carolina primary, you wonder how much of an option he’ll be in the fourth.
Which brings us to Super Tuesday, on March 3. That’s the first date on which Bloomberg will be on ballots, thanks to his late entry into the 2020 race and his unorthodox strategy of spurning the first four states. He has gambled that he doesn’t need the “momentum” that candidates covet from those early states, perhaps in part because his lavishly self-funded campaign doesn’t need the money that usually comes with it. He’s also betting that not even trying in those four states will help him avoid the kind of potentially negative narrative that Biden is confronting. It’s a novel strategy, but if anyone could pull it off, it would be a mega-billionaire like Bloomberg.
So can he? Super Tuesday will be make-or-break for Bloomberg, no doubt — as it will be pretty much for everyone else. That’s because 14 states are holding contests, and about 1 out of every 3 delegates is at stake. As the other candidates have focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, Bloomberg has blanketed these other states with ads and hired unheard-of amounts of staff in them. The combined investment so far is more than a quarter-billion dollars.
And there are signs that it’s working — at least somewhat. There are very few polls in the Super Tuesday states, but the few we have suggest he’s a player. To wit, some recent polls:
Beyond that, we haven’t seen many Super Tuesday polls. But if you look at states in the two weeks that follow, the trend holds. In the March 10 mini-Super Tuesday:
And on March 17:
By that point, more than 3 out of every 5 delegates will have been selected. And pretty much every poll we have suggests he’s at least on voters’ radars in most of these states. If the contest is still open after the first four states and/or the party starts to wonder about a front-runner like Sanders or Buttigieg being able to win, Bloomberg has set himself up as an option.
Whether he’ll be the most attractive fallback, though, is uncertain. Just as Trump began the 2016 race with awful image numbers — even among Republicans — the former mayor of New York began with an image befitting a New York mayor across much of the country. Some polls have shown even Democrats dislike him more than they like him. Trump, of course, soon changed that, and there are signs Bloomberg might as well.
Part of the resistance to Bloomberg undoubtedly owes to his wealth. This is a Democratic Party where an anti-billionaire message has suited some of the candidates quite well, after all. But if this become a “just win, baby” election, you wonder what those same voters might come to believe about what that wealth could do for their chances — especially from a candidate who is very much on their side on issues of gun violence and climate change. Bloomberg could also very plausibly present himself as a pragmatic pick on other issues, like the economy.
There’s a lot of what-ifs built into the case for Bloomberg winning the nomination, but there remain a lot of questions about the 2020 Democratic field, and the party’s unquenchable thirst for getting Trump out of the Oval Office could make for a unique campaign.
Bloomberg has a credible case to make that he can provide them something that they didn’t even know they wanted. And if 2016 showed us anything, that’s sometimes what the moment calls for.