From 30,000 feet, it looks as if Bloomberg’s plan is working reasonably well: He’s gaining in national polls and has real campaign operations set up in populous, delegate-rich states. And Sanders, the candidate Bloomberg would most likely want to face one-on-one, is mid-surge. But Bloomberg has real problems. Despite his spending spree, Bloomberg’s numbers aren’t yet where they need to be for him to be truly competitive, and there are signs he may have hidden vulnerabilities down the stretch.
So far, Bloomberg’s ad spree is showing the limits of that approach: Bloomberg is only at 8 percent in the national polls, which is good but not great. Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are all ahead of him. If any one of them wins Iowa or New Hampshire, they’d likely see a boost in their national numbers and put greater distance between themselves and Bloomberg. If another candidate surges, Bloomberg could try to spend more of his money. But it may not work — Tom Steyer, who has spent significant sums in the early states but has failed to take the lead in any of them, is another cautionary tale about this style of campaigning.
The limits to Bloomberg’s polling present a real problem for him in the delegate race. In most states, Democrats only give delegates to candidates who get more than 15 percent of the vote in a specific state or congressional district. Bloomberg is well below that threshold in California, Texas and North Carolina, and if he doesn’t gain ground, he may come out of Super Tuesday with a shockingly small haul. Even if the field is still splintered in March, there’s no guarantee that Bloomberg would have the delegates or the small-D Democratic legitimacy to be a big player.
And if the field doesn’t stay splintered — say, Sanders and Bloomberg are the only ones left standing after the early stages — Bloomberg may still not win. He has a truckload of baggage. He supported George W Bush in 2004, promoted stop-and-frisk in New York, has been accused of sexual misconduct and seems to be trying to buy a nomination during a time of heightened populism. Bloomberg might believe that, in a one-on-one fight with a very progressive candidate like Sanders or Warren, he could rally the moderates, consolidate establishment support and win. Instead, he could unwittingly become the heel in a populist narrative: an ineffectual billionaire who thought he could buy an election but was instead steamrolled by the people.
Bloomberg’s strategy is risky. If a unifying, clear front-runner like Biden or Warren makes it out of the early states, voters and party bigwigs might not feel any need to support Bloomberg. If the field remains splintered coming out of the early states, there’s no guarantee that Bloomberg would be able to build on his 8 percent and win. And he might be seriously underestimating Sanders, who, despite his reputation with some high-level Democrats, is reasonably well-liked among the Democratic rank-and-file.
But risky, new strategies can sometimes surprise. Maybe Bloomberg, like Trump in the 2016 primary, has insights and instincts that the rest of us don’t. Or maybe by mid-March he’ll be just another rich dude who burned through money because he thought the United States needed him to be president.