Mike Bloomberg becomes the Democrats’ piñata, new polling has the primary getting even more confusing, and impeachment rocks the Democratic conference for a few hours, before stopping.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had spent nearly 11 months running for president, almost none of it attacking a rival Democratic candidate by name. She’d reserved her ire for billionaires, shaming Facebook investor Peter Thiel and JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon in her first — so far, only — negative ad. Even when she’d criticized Joe Biden for allegedly “repeating Republican talking points” about heath care, his name slipped out just once, and she dropped that line when Biden pushed back.
Mike Bloomberg is getting some different treatment. On Monday, Warren cheerfully informed an Ankeny, Iowa, audience that it was “day two of Michael Bloomberg’s $37 million ad buy,” saying that was no good for anyone.
“Michael Bloomberg is making a bet about democracy in 2020,” Warren continued, at an event focused on her own campaign’s volunteers. “His view is that he doesn’t need people who knock on doors. He doesn’t need to get out and campaign with people. He doesn’t need volunteers. And if you get out and knock on 1,000 doors, he’ll just spend another $37 million to flood the airways. And that’s how he plans to buy a nomination in the Democratic Party. I think it’s fundamentally wrong.”
In his first hours as a candidate for president, Bloomberg has become what the crowded Democratic primary lacked: a pincushion. The latest Democrat to enter the race is offering a campaign of unlimited resources, attempting to hack around the primary system to skip to the expensive general election. It’s a direct challenge to the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire, which some Democrats are fine with. It’s also a replacement for the sort of mass organizing and intersectional alliance-building that many Democrats and liberals, led by Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), see as the only way to regain power.
“I don’t think, at the end of the day, most Democrats are focused on any particular policy other than removing this man from office,” Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, told MSNBC on Monday. “No one’s campaigning in the only [states] that matter: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona. Those are the only states that matter in the general election.”
Sheekey was incorrect: Multiple candidates have stumped in those swing states, including Sanders and Warren. That campaigning has taken the form of town halls and rallies with thousands of attendees, as well as small meet-and-greets or labor solidarity events. With less fanfare, the biggest campaigns are also holding daily organizing parties across the country to build post-Iowa operations that could one day be retooled for a general election. Earlier this month, when 1,000 “barnstormers” traveled to Iowa to help Pete Buttigieg, they were advertising the candidate’s grass-roots network outside early-voting states.
There is no such grass-roots movement for Bloomberg, despite years of fitful work at creating one. Unity ’08 and Americans Elect were launched in 2008 and 2012 to help a potential third-party candidate appear on state ballots, work that collapsed when no candidate of Bloomberg’s wealth and stature decided to run. (He officially abandoned the third-party dream after 2016.) Bloomberg’s campaign events have flaunted his uniqueness: quick trips to the states, such as Arkansas or Virginia, where he needs to file for the ballot, followed by lunch with local leaders.
Bloomberg’s ad buys have touched markets and states that no other candidate was planning to invest in yet. It has the look of a national election when candidates no longer spend hours talking to voters in diners or VFW halls, and for some in the states, it had upsides.
“Honestly, people appreciated that he came to the state,” said Michael John Gray, the chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party. “Unfortunately, when you live in a state-run by a Republican majority, sometimes you only see Democrats framed the way Republicans want to frame them. We haven’t seen anything like Bloomberg’s $250,000 investment here; I mean, that’d be like a $2 million investment elsewhere. That will benefit the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, the chairman of Texas’s Democratic Party, said Bloomberg was simply being smart by investing in states such as his.
“There’s a handful of delegates in New Hampshire and Iowa, and a potful of gold of delegates in Texas and California,” Hinojosa said. “If Mr. Bloomberg is willing to spend that money and make that kind of investment, he’ll be the first Democrat of my lifetime to do it in Texas. Last time around, Hillary Clinton spend $250,000 to buy a little bit of radio here.”
Bloomberg, who has spent personal money to elect both Democrats and Republicans, is uninterested in any argument about campaign financing. Just as Joe Biden did when he ended his opposition to a super PAC, Bloomberg is asking Democrats to think about what a general election really looks like and whether they really want purity when they could have a machine dedicated to ousting Trump.
But Warren and Sanders have turned their small-dollar fundraising into the case for their candidacies; Sanders points out frequently that he has more individual donations than Trump does. Bloomberg has sworn off campaign donations, rejecting the modern Democratic argument — captured by the party’s donors-and-polls debate threshold — that small-dollar support is proof that a candidate is competitive.
“This is the arrogance of billionaires,” Sanders told voters in New Hampshire this past weekend. ” ‘Hey, I can run for president because I’m worth $55 billion, and maybe I’ll take $1 billion out of that $55 billion’— not a lot when you’re worth that much — ‘and start running a massive amount of TV ads.’”
The irony in this criticism, from Sanders and Warren, is that neither campaign sees Bloomberg’s entry as a problem for them. The former mayor of New York City was urged into the contest, in part, by moderate Democrats worrying about whether former vice president Joe Biden could push past the better-funded Warren or Sanders. At his Virginia stop, Bloomberg both defended his campaign spending (“I’ve been using my resources for the things that matter to me”) and acknowledged that he was getting high-level interest.
“I was lucky enough to receive some very flattering calls that will just stay between me and whoever made the call,” Bloomberg said. “I didn’t grow up in a world where I knew famous people. And when you get a call from one of them, I still pinch myself a little bit.”
For many Democrats, Bloomberg has been on firmer footing when dismissing the role of New Hampshire and Iowa in the primary process by declining to compete for either. Democratic thinking about the first two states, with electorates much whiter than the party as a whole, is conflicted. On Friday, when asked whether Bloomberg was insulting Iowa, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) turned the conversation to campaign finance reform in general.
“The average American is going to make their decision,” she said, “but I know that the average American wants there to be campaign finance reform. We know that whoever you are, we have to get money out of politics. It should not be a function of how much money you have.”
A couple of days later, when a voter put the Bloomberg question directly to Buttigieg, the Indiana mayor was diplomatic. “It’s not my place to tell any other campaign what to do,” he said. “As the very first in the nation, you get such a big say on who gets to move on.”
Rejecting donations will keep Bloomberg off December’s debate stage, and he has not reached a high enough level in public polls to qualify, anyway. The 17 Democrats running against him are generally viewed more favorably by the party’s voters.
“Which version of our democracy is going to win?” Warren asked in Ankeny. “If Michael Bloomberg’s version of democracy wins, then democracy changes, and it’s going to be about which billionaire you can stomach going forward. Because believe me, I’ve heard plenty of billionaires who think they should be president, or at the minimum should be picking the president.”
Bloomberg has not done much, yet, to push back against the idea that he’s offering Democrats a buyout. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who endorsed Harris for president in September, did not know that Bloomberg was spending Tuesday in his home state until The Post asked him about the visit.
“The upside is that it brings more attention to our state, [but] I can’t say if he will be rewarded,” Gallego said. “I don’t understand why Bloomberg is jumping in. We have winning candidates right now. I endorsed Kamala Harris specifically because I think she can put the coalition together to win. I have doubts Bloomberg can.”
Jim Morrison contributed reporting from Norfolk.