Sunday 8 December 2019

Power play: Bloomberg's bid for battle of the billionaires

He's plunged into the US presidential fray with a massive ad spend and boundless confidence, but 77-year-old Michael Bloomberg has a fight on his hands to win the Democratic nomination, writes Robert Schmuhl

Advertising blitz: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a late entrant into the US presidential race
Advertising blitz: Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a late entrant into the US presidential race

Robert Schmuhl

Political ambition works in strange ways but usually leads to a single-minded decision. The search for power.

In the case of Michael Bloomberg, his recent announcement seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for US president was a last-minute, roll-the-dice call. The phenomenally wealthy septuagenarian concluded it was now or never to add the White House, if only for a term or two, to his many opulent residences.

The former New York City mayor joins 17 other contenders battling to be the Democratic standard bearer in next year's campaign against Republican incumbent Donald Trump. For Bloomberg, a former Republican, turned independent, now Democrat, the contest is personal.

"I'm running for president to defeat Donald Trump and rebuild America," he said entering the race. "We cannot afford four more years of President Trump's reckless and unethical actions. He represents an existential threat to our country and our values. If he wins another term in office, we may never recover from the damage."

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Bloomberg bolstered his punchy opening with TV commercials that aired in more than half the country this week. The price tag for this initial ad buy was staggering: $30.6m.

That Midas-like sum is just the beginning for a candidate not accepting any donations. One adviser asserted: "Mike is prepared to spend what it takes to defeat Donald Trump."

Bloomberg (worth over $50bn) knows Trump (estimated $3bn in total assets) from their decades of doing business in New York. Two individuals couldn't be more different or inimical.

From a middle-class background in Massachusetts, Bloomberg came to Wall Street after university and built a company that developed into media behemoth Bloomberg LP, employer of approximately 20,000 people. Data and statistics drive Bloomberg, while Trump, beneficiary of his father's successful real-estate business, is known for relying on impulses and intuitions.

Bloomberg is preoccupied with policy results instead of performing in front of political supporters, as the president loves doing at rallies.

In terms of issues, the two are polar opposites. According to Forbes Magazine, the former three-term mayor's charitable arm ("Bloomberg Philanthropies") has donated approximately $8bn to advance gun control, to fight climate change and to reduce health problems.

By contrast, the Trump administration talks about reducing gun violence without initiating any legislation and withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement.

'Little Michael'

As much as Bloomberg would like a general election contest against the White House occupant, who already dismisses him as "little Michael," winning the Democratic nomination will require more than an unlimited bank account and advice from consultants.

Bloomberg entered the competition so late he's not going to be on the ballot for the four earliest intraparty contests: Iowa (February 3), New Hampshire (February 11), Nevada (February 22) and South Carolina (February 29).

Avoiding the entire first month of candidate combat - Iowa and Nevada are caucuses, New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries - could annoy voters in those states and possibly convey the broader impression that Bloomberg thinks he's better than others in the field. Being perceived as a small "d" democrat is de rigueur for Democratic faithful.

During February, a total of 155 convention delegates will go to one or other competitor. But then comes what's called "Super Tuesday" on March 3 - and the much-ballyhooed entry of Bloomberg.

In the 15 primaries and one caucus that day, a whopping 1,358 delegates will be up for grabs-with California's 416 and Texas's 228 the biggest prizes. The Bloomberg campaign will buy so much advertising time across all the states in play, located in every section of the country, that the average person might think he's the only candidate competing on "Super Tuesday".

But he won't be, and that will test his unconventional and unorthodox strategy.

Since party rule changes in the 1970s by both Democrats and Republicans, emphasising more participatory selection of presidential nominees, the initial scrums have shaped the eventual outcome. A candidate's performance in Iowa or New Hampshire frequently leads to the momentum necessary for victory at the summer convention.

Bloomberg is gambling that what happens during February will prove chaotically indecisive, with multiple winners, thus opening the door to his late arrival. After March 3, there are multi-state primaries on March 10 and March 17 involving 929 more delegates. He either dominates that month or will have to call it quits.

The Bloomberg candidacy comes eight months after he announced he wouldn't run in 2020. Interestingly, two other presidential aspirants who previously said they'd stay on the sidelines - former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and billionaire activist Tom Steyer - have also recently entered the Democratic fray.

In each case, individual ego - that inner voice shouting "I can do better than them!" - plays a significant role in the change of mind. But it's more than that. As with Bloomberg, the desire to defeat Trump is the top-of-mind objective. Beyond that, there's a nagging worry that the four leading candidates in latest opinion polls - former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg - might not be able to prevail against the president.

Biden, the same age as Bloomberg at 77, has lost twice in the past seeking the nomination. Sanders (78) and Warren (70) are widely considered too liberal to win nationally. Buttigieg, just 37, is the mayor of a Midwestern city of 102,000.

Whether someone, who's a pragmatic centrist with a bottomless billfold, can appeal to Democrats will be debated across America the next four months. With TV ads popping up everywhere and all the time, voters will be forced to decide. Is Michael Bloomberg, with his beat-the-clock ambition, the answer - or just a larkish, gold-plated question?

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He's the author of 'The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump'

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