The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mike Bloomberg’s campaign makes absolutely no sense

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg talks about his presidential run during a news conference Monday in Norfolk, Va. (Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images)

Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has finally scratched the presidential itch he’s had for nearly a decade. But many presidential candidates call themselves; few are chosen.

Bloomberg enters a race without much voter appeal. Only 2 percent of Democratic primary voters favor him according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average. That’s not because they have never heard of him: Polls show between 60 percent and 70 percent of Democrats have already formed an opinion of him. But that’s also not good news for the media billionaire, as these voters split nearly evenly between viewing him favorably and unfavorably. In fact, the latest Economist/You Gov poll shows that only author Marianne Williamson and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) — lampooned by “Saturday Night Live” as the “villain” in last week’s debate — are viewed more unfavorably by Democrats than Bloomberg. Yikes.

Turning those numbers around will require a lot of work, and Bloomberg is already shifting leftward to match up with the modern Democratic Party’s leanings. He apologized for the “stop-and-frisk” policy of the New York City Police Department during his mayoralty in an effort to court African American voters. His unprecedented $34 million television ad campaign launches this week, touching on almost every Democratic priority issue: health insurance, LGBTQ equality, climate change and gun control. Bloomberg is clearly banking that Democrats’ opinion of him will improve once they get to know how liberal he really is.

That strategy, however, actually demonstrates Bloomberg’s problem. None of those positions distinguishes him from any other serious candidate running, and he is not going far left enough to satisfy the party’s progressive activists. He’s not giving Democrats who want a more centrist nominee any reason to back him over the other relatively centrist contenders already in the race. Why back Bloomberg when Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) share his views and are already in the race?

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Bloomberg’s challenge is compounded by the fact that he is skipping the first two states to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s not hard to understand why he’s doing that, as a recent CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll showed 58 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers view him unfavorably. But no candidate in decades has bypassed both states and gone on to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. There’s just too much free media attention paid to those places to give anyone else time to gain traction.

Nor does the billionaire’s money necessarily give him a leg up. Many candidates on the Republican side have entered their party’s race with massive cash advantages. But without a compelling, original message, those candidates — former Texas governor John Connally in 1980, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in 2008 and former Florida governor Jeb Bush in 2016 — quickly fizzled. Indeed, these men all spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in their pursuits. None of them won a single state’s contest.

The differences between Donald Trump’s 2016 improbable candidacy and what Bloomberg is trying to pull off are telling. Trump based his appeal on going against the Republican Party’s grain. He abrasively took extreme positions on immigration and Muslim refugees and broke with party orthodoxy on trade, entitlement spending and foreign policy. He angered many longtime Republicans, but he attracted attention and gave millions of others something different to vote for. He is also a showman’s showman who has spent his life crafting and selling himself to the masses. Bloomberg’s approach won’t stand out from the crowd, and the comparatively shy mayor has never been accused of having too much charisma.

Democratic Party delegate apportionment rules also work against Bloomberg. Trump mobilized a plurality of Republican voters, but under the GOP’s rules, that often gave him a majority or all of a state’s delegates. Democrats, however, award their delegates proportionally. Trump received all 50 of South Carolina’s delegates, despite winning only 32 percent of the vote in that early state’s primary. Were Bloomberg to do the same thing, he would get only a bit more than 32 percent of the delegates.

Bloomberg has just one possible path to the nomination: emerge as a compromise, anti-progressive candidate if all the other potential centrists fail in the early states. That’s an exceedingly unlikely event.

Back in March, Bloomberg said he wouldn’t run because he was “clear-eyed about the difficulty of winning the Democratic nomination in such a crowded field.” The field remains crowded and eight months have passed, making his job that much harder. Perhaps he sees a path no one else can divine. Or perhaps he just needs to stop looking in the mirror and get himself a new set of glasses.

Read more:

Jonathan Capehart: Why Bloomberg won’t be the Democratic nominee

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Democrats have put their differences above beating Trump. Bloomberg is a symptom not a cure.

David Byler: Hey, Michael Bloomberg, no one wants you to run for president

Jennifer Rubin: Five better uses of Michael Bloomberg’s money

James Downie: The incredible wastefulness of Mike Bloomberg