But Bloomberg’s success raises the prospect of a series of scenarios that should give every Democrat serious pause.
It’s now a reasonable possibility that the nominating contest could winnow down into a sustained brawl between Bloomberg and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the front-runner.
What happens if Bloomberg spends massively from his fortune to try to demolish Sanders, whose tremendous success in stockpiling small-dollar donations is forging a new, people-powered model for funding presidential campaigns as we speak?
I have asked the Bloomberg campaign if it’s a real possibility that in such a showdown, Bloomberg will spend enormous sums on ads attacking Sanders — or, alternatively, if that has been ruled out.
I have not yet received an answer. It’s one all Democrats should demand.
Bloomberg is rising
Bloomberg is now in second place in national polls of Democratic voters, just barely ahead of Joe Biden, while Sanders leads. Bloomberg’s strategy — skipping the four early contests, while sinking enormous sums into the Super Tuesday contests — could be working.
One plausible scenario is that, if Sanders doesn’t amass an insurmountable delegate lead after Super Tuesday, and the other moderates (Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar) fade, the contest could in effect become a Sanders-Bloomberg match-up.
Sanders and Bloomberg may well emerge with the large majority of delegates after Super Tuesday, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver points out. Bloomberg is “very competitive” in numerous Super Tuesday states, Silver notes.
Sanders might defeat Bloomberg in such a showdown, by using Bloomberg as a foil for Sanders’s railing about billionaires buying elections. Sanders just excoriated Bloomberg as a “multibillionaire candidate” with a history of plutocratic positions.
But between now and then, it’s easy to see how Bloomberg’s fortune might bankroll a huge wave of attacks against Sanders.
Bloomberg might justify this by claiming that beating Trump is imperative, and that Sanders will fail. Bloomberg would thus convert his willingness to spend obscene sums of his own money against Sanders into another sign of his benevolence.
But this would be a terrible state of affairs.
It has already been widely argued — see Ryan Cooper, Eric Levitz, and David Dayen — that if Bloomberg successfully overwhelms the process with his personal financial firepower, it will deeply stain Democrats’ claim to being the party arrayed against big-money corruption of our politics.
Of course, if a President Bloomberg ended up pursuing a genuine traitor-to-his-class agenda, such damage could be contained, though betting on that is itself risky.
But here’s what we can say right now: A Bloomberg effort to overwhelm Sanders with his personal fortune is particularly unbearable to contemplate, precisely because of the contrast it would present with Sanders’s own fundraising.
Sanders’s fundraising is paradigm-shifting
Sanders’s fundraising success is a truly monumental achievement. Sanders, like Warren, has forsworn both help from corporate PACs and high-dollar donations.
And it has worked. Sanders recently announced raising more than $34.5 million in the fourth quarter of last year, in average donations of $18, bringing his 2019 total to nearly $100 million, in 5 million individual donations. Sanders has shown that a campaign can be entirely grassroots-funded.
What message will it send if Democrats allow this new model to be snuffed out under an avalanche of one billionaire’s spending from his plutocratic fortune?
What message will this send to the millions of people who have scraped to do their part against Trump by donating small sums not just to Sanders but also to the other Democrats?
Perhaps Bloomberg will not spend a penny attacking Sanders. Even so, the possibility that Bloomberg could prevail via massive spending solely on his own behalf — by overwhelming Sanders’s grass-roots-fueled spending many times over — should seriously disturb Democrats.
Some might argue that Sanders, an independent, is himself hijacking the party. But Sanders has caucused with Senate Democrats for many years, contributing to the passage of party-defining legislation. He has spent the better part of two presidential cycles directly interacting with millions of Democratic voters across the country.
The argument for holding one’s nose and allowing Bloomberg’s money to prevail is that Sanders is too risky in the general election and that our current crisis calls for desperate measures, such as relying on Bloomberg’s fortune to overcome President Trump.
But even if one accepts that those arguments might be plausible (they aren’t even slam dunks), they do not render an outcome in which Bloomberg’s billions hijack the Democratic nomination acceptable.
The blithe tossing aside of this new grass-roots model of fundraising — simply by virtue of the fact that a single plutocrat, whatever his own considerable accomplishments, came along who can personally outspend millions of politically motivated Americans — is itself an arguably unacceptable price to pay.
And when Bloomberg himself uses our crisis to disarm objections to his hijacking of the process, that, too, should give pause. “There is nothing Trump can do or say that can hurt me,” Bloomberg says, alluding to his net worth of more than $50 billion. “I won’t let him bully you, either.”
In this telling, Bloomberg’s massive wealth becomes a form of protection against Trump. His ostentatious spending — on extensive staff hires, on lavish events and salaries for advisers — is itself supposed to lull Democrats into acceding to the protection he’s offering.
But this risks straying into a form of surrender, in which it is tacitly accepted that Trump cannot be defeated through the power of grass-roots organizing, persuasion and participation.
Untold numbers of Democratic voters will probably not countenance this. Such a scenario threatens to constitute a moral and political disaster that risks tearing the party apart.