Technically speaking, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s presidential primary season hasn’t started yet. He opted to skip the first four contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and instead target March 3, Super Tuesday, a day on which about a third of the delegates in the Democratic primary will be awarded.
There were some practical reasons for this; by jumping in late, he missed the New Hampshire filing deadline, for example. But by skipping those contests, he missed out on only a piece of 155 delegates — about a third of what’s at stake in California alone. What’s more, the early states were more likely to see splits in how those delegates were distributed, with more-viable candidates in the mix.
The Democratic primary process, you may recall, distributes delegates proportionately to candidates. On the Republican side, some states are winner-take-all — get more votes than your competitors, and you get all the delegates. This helped Donald Trump lock out the competition in 2016. On the Democratic side, though, things are trickier — slower.
There’s an important caveat, though: to get delegates, you have to have the support of at least 15 percent of the electorate. How that percentage is calculated varies, but it sets a threshold candidates have to meet. And that threshold is central to Bloomberg’s strategy.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver estimates that Bloomberg is better positioned than nearly every other candidate to earn delegates on Super Tuesday. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will probably earn delegates in every state. Bloomberg will probably earn delegates everywhere except Vermont, where Sanders will romp. Of course, there are only 16 delegates at stake in Sanders’s home state, so not a huge loss.
If we take FiveThirtyEight’s current averages in the largest states with delegates at stake, support looks like this, where percentages in bold exceed the 15 percent threshold:
Based on this math — which, you’ll note, has Bloomberg short in California — Sanders will be the big winner, even though he’s pulling only 20 to 30 percent of the vote in each state. Bloomberg, though, will earn more delegates than former vice president Joe Biden. Depending on how Biden fares in Nevada and South Carolina, the two could be in a near-tie in early March.
That’s assuming Bloomberg doesn’t hit 15 percent in California; Silver projects he will, despite the current averages.
Bloomberg’s strategy hasn’t been simply to compete in Super Tuesday states. It has been to completely bury voters in those states with ads. The amount of money Bloomberg could spend on his campaign is mind-boggling; the amount he has spent is exceptional. In 2016, Trump seemed poised to dip into his wealth to similarly flood out his competitors, but he didn’t. Instead, his message, rooted in hostility to immigrants and mirroring conservative media, quickly amassed a following.
Bloomberg’s more general message doesn’t seem to have had the same effect. His blizzard of ads, though, has made up the difference. In a Yahoo News-YouGov poll conducted last week, two-thirds of respondents said they had seen a Bloomberg ad — perhaps during the Super Bowl.
The timing of this has been beneficial to Bloomberg. Biden’s stumbles in Iowa and New Hampshire came as Bloomberg was ramping up. The two shared a message that was similarly moderate in broad strokes, and as Biden sank in polls, Bloomberg rose.
A poll from NPR and PBS NewsHour conducted by Marist shows the change in support since December. Biden has lost nine points of support; Sanders has gained the same amount.
Bloomberg has gained 15. He was polling poorly enough in December that Marist didn’t break out his numbers for demographic subgroups, but you can see that he now leads Biden among moderates — and liberals. He leads Biden among women and older voters, both of whom strongly supported the former vice president two months ago. He has a large lead over Biden with whites without a college degree — but trails him slightly among nonwhite poll respondents. That result is within the margin of error.
Sanders’s rise, of course, is a different shift. It’s probably related in part to the drop Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has seen since December — just as Bloomberg’s rise may in part be a function of a decline in support for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg (D).
If we group the leading candidates into two groups — more liberal and more moderate — there’s a clear divide. About half of Democrats support the more moderate candidates — Biden, Bloomberg, Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) — while about 4 in 10 back Sanders and Warren. Support for both groups has increased since the beginning of the year.
But notice the change in that blue section. On Feb. 1, the four more-moderate candidates had a combined support in RealClearPolitics’s polling average of 46.2 percent. It’s now at 48.2 percent — little change. But during that period, Biden dropped 10 points and Bloomberg gained about seven. (Buttigieg has gained about three points, and Klobuchar two.)
This continues to be a fluid race, as the recent shifts suggest. Bloomberg is seeing new scrutiny applied to his positions, with two weeks to go before Super Tuesday. But Bloomberg can do something Biden couldn’t as the former vice president’s position began to get shaky: He can simply advertise his way through things. Two-thirds of respondents in that Yahoo poll said they had seen a Bloomberg ad. How many had read a news article about the former mayor?
In 2020, Trump’s campaign has the resources to similarly overwhelm voters with ads. This is actually part of Bloomberg’s sales pitch: He can overpower Trump’s campaign money. That’s not the pitch he makes in his ads, but the ubiquity of those ads makes the point indirectly.
With Super Tuesday approaching, Bloomberg seems to be proving that this may be a viable strategy.