MANCHESTER, N.H. ― Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and multibillionaire media mogul who has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money into a presidential bid, spent the weekend thousands of miles away, campaigning with television’s Judge Judy in Oklahoma City. He’s not on Tuesday’s Democratic presidential primary ballot in New Hampshire, and won’t appear on the ballot in any state for nearly a month.
But that hasn’t prevented him from looming over the first primary voting, and his forthcoming showdown with the rest of the Democratic field is a constant source of conversation and speculation for voters, operatives and political tourists.
As the leading campaigns for the nomination to challenge GOP President Donald Trump prepare to exit New Hampshire and head to bigger and more diverse states over the next three weeks, Bloomberg’s late arrival in the Democratic race ― and likely appearance in next week’s debate in Nevada ― presents an opportunity for some candidates and challenges for others.
Bloomberg’s money erases the small-dollar dominance of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, while also playing into Sanders’ rhetoric about how billionaires have corrupted the political system. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign is looking for a game-changing moment, has long sought political combat with Bloomberg. And Bloomberg’s gains among Black voters threaten the core of former Vice President Joe Biden’s firewall. (The campaigns of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar both remain focused on the four early states, and are less immediately impacted by Bloomberg.)
There’s good reason for the campaigns to fear him: Bloomberg has spent more than $350 million on ads ― nearly twice as much as Tom Steyer, a fellow billionaire and the second-largest spender in the race. That’s nearly 10 times what Sanders’ campaign has spent on advertising. He’s hired 2,100 staffers in just months, dwarfing the extensive operations that Warren and Sanders took nearly a full year to assemble. All this money has been aimed at the states voting on March 3 ― Super Tuesday ― when about one-third of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention will be awarded.
And that heavy spending is leading to a rise in the polls. A national Quinnipiac University poll of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents released Monday found Bloomberg earning 15% of the vote in the primary, essentially tied for third with Warren. (Sanders led with 25%, followed by Biden with 17%.)
The ultimate sign of how much the conversation has seemed to revolve around Bloomberg came shortly after midnight Tuesday, where Bloomberg won the tiny town of Dixville Notch, which traditionally votes before the rest of the state, hijacking a New Hampshire political tradition without ever setting foot here.
“Since Iowa last week, it is clear that the candidate field, while narrowing and perhaps becoming less clear on some aspects, is not producing a candidate that can truly take on Donald Trump, and defeat him in the fall,” Dan Kanninen, a Bloomberg campaign adviser, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.
Some allies of Sanders, who leads in the polls here and has become the national front-runner since Biden’s stumble in Iowa, fear Bloomberg’s massive television and digital ad spends could soon target the democratic socialist. (So far, all of Bloomberg’s spending has been aimed at Trump.)
While Sanders continues to shatter small-dollar fundraising records ― his campaign banked $25 million in January alone ― the amount he’ll be able to spend in expensive Super Tuesday states, including California, Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts, pales in comparison to Bloomberg’s fortune.
“It really is absurd that we have a guy who is prepared to spend — already — many hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads,” Sanders said Sunday night in an interview on “The Dean Obeidallah Show” on SiriusXM. “Meanwhile, he did not do what all of the other Democratic candidates do. He wasn’t holding town meetings in Iowa, or New Hampshire, or Nevada, or South Carolina. Those were not important enough for him. He could simply buy the election with hundreds of millions of dollars of ads. That is wrong. That is the basic, fundamental problem of American society — is that billionaires have extraordinary wealth and power over the economic and political life of this country.”
If Bloomberg does go after Sanders, it’s likely he’ll try to contrast their records on gun control, a top issue for Democratic primary voters. Since the Newtown school massacre in 2012, Bloomberg has emerged as the key funder of gun control efforts in the United States, while moderates in the Democratic Party ― including most recently Biden ― have long attacked Sanders for accepting the endorsement of the National Rifle Association and holding pro-gun stances in the early 1990s.
On Saturday, the Sanders campaign announced the hire of Matt Deitsch, a co-founder of the March For Our Lives gun-control advocacy movement, as a policy adviser on gun violence prevention. Deitsch could help Sanders fight back against any Bloomberg attacks.
Warren, whose rhetoric on billionaires and corruption closely matches Sanders’, has long looked forward to a showdown with Bloomberg. While she typically shies away from criticisms of other Democrats in the 2020 race, she is eager to launch attacks on the highest-profile billionaire in the race,
“I will point it out every single day that billionaires are trying to buy this election,” Warren told reporters on a campaign bus on Monday. “And whether it’s a billionaire running or a billionaire who is financing a super PAC, or a billionaire who is creating the opportunities for a candidate who is going to be beholden to that billionaire. If we stay on this path, our democracy fundamentally changes.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren, confronted the Democratic National Committee in December to open up the rules, potentially allowing Bloomberg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro onto the debate stage. The group is hopeful the contrast can boost Warren’s mostly stagnant standing in the polls ahead of the Super Tuesday states, where Warren has made extensive investments in field operations. (Bloomberg is likely, but not yet guaranteed, to make the stage for the Jan. 19 debate in Las Vegas.)
“Michael Bloomberg is the personification of Elizabeth Warren’s argument that billionaires are buying and corrupting our political system,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “The fact that he’s so arrogant that he doesn’t feel the need to engage voters shows how out of touch a government run by billionaires would be.”
Bloomberg seems to pose the most direct threat to Biden, who shares his broad ideological outlook and policy priorities, but not his personal fortune. While Biden’s campaign thinks the former vice president can contrast his “Middle Class Joe” persona with Bloomberg’s billions, the Quinnipiac University poll already shows Bloomberg eating into Biden’s vote share.
Most crucially, Bloomberg is gaining with Black voters, who are crucial to Biden’s plans to rack up delegates in South Carolina and the Southern states that cast ballots on Super Tuesday. The Quinnipiac poll found Bloomberg’s share of the Black vote jumping from 8% to 22% since January, while Biden’s declined from 52% to 27%.
Bloomberg’s strength with Black voters alarmed the other campaigns. By the end of the day Monday, multiple operatives were quietly circulating an audio clip of Bloomberg defending the controversial New York Police Department stop and frisk program he expanded as mayor. Critics have long argued the program was unconstitutional and involved unfair racial profiling of Blacks and Latinos.
Interviews with moderate Democratic voters ― including some who drove up from either Bloomberg’s home state of Massachusetts or New York ― show many were prepared to see him as a savior who could block a Sanders nomination and defeat Trump in the fall.
“In the end, based on Biden’s inability to raise money, based on the fact that even Pete’s going to have trouble in Super Tuesday, and the fact that Amy who’s like the perfect candidate can’t get gain the traction she has to, then we have no choice but to support Bloomberg. He’s a great man, he was a great mayor,” said Lenny Airsch, an attorney from New York who came to Buttigieg’s town hall in Nashua on Sunday.
Is Bloomberg trying to buy the nomination?
“We have no choice. You gotta beat Trump,” said Richard Aurbach, another attorney from New York. “He’s going to spend all this money, and give it all these down-ballot candidates. What’s wrong with that? All Mike has to do is say let’s both stand on our wallets and say who’s taller now?”
Airsch added: “Stop-and-frisk, while controversial, worked.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting from Nashua, New Hampshire.