If Michael Bloomberg’s intention was to derail the nomination of Bernie Sanders and prevent the reelection of Donald Trump, he may have achieved exactly the opposite.
Perhaps, had Bloomberg entered the race earlier — competed along with the rest of the pack, first in Iowa and then New Hampshire — those two early states would have played their traditional roles of separating the wheat from the chaff.
The conventional wisdom used to be that there were at best three tickets out of New Hampshire. While few seem inclined any longer to defend the notion that two, small, non-diverse states should play such an outsized role in the nominating process, Iowa and New Hampshire proved effective over the years in narrowing the field before the national primary process gained a head of steam. The highly personal style of primary politics in those two states also proved effective as platforms for elevating unlikely candidates — Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, most notably — into prominence.
In a normal year, with Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders finishing one-two and two-one in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, the Democratic race might have quickly devolved into a traditional two person contest between Sanders on the left and Buttigieg in the moderate lane, perhaps with Amy Klobuchar getting the third ticket out on account of her strong third place finish in New Hampshire. Instead, Michael Bloomberg’s last minute entry into the race changed everything.
For months, Bloomberg maintained that he had no intention of running for President unless it became evident that Joe Biden was not going to make it to the finish line. Yet, even as Biden’s money was drying up, and Joe had been left for dead by much of the punditocracy, the site of a billionaire arriviste dancing on his grave gave Biden a new lease on life.
Bloomberg jumping in gave Elizabeth Warren a new lease on life as well. Through a good part of last year, Warren looked to be the prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination. She had built a vaunted field operation across Iowa and was generally ceded a “favorite daughter” advantage in New Hampshire, as the Senator from neighboring Massachusetts. By all historical precedent, when her field operation failed to produce on caucus night in Iowa and then she barely avoided a fifth place finish in New Hampshire, she should have been done. Instead, her relentless pursuit of Bloomberg on the debate stage in Nevada and across media outlets over the following days gave her campaign a rebirth of attention and fundraising cash.
And, of course, nothing could have served Bernie’s election narrative better than the arrival of a billionaire plutocrat proclaiming himself the establishment white knight. Between his millions of campaign dollars and his self-assured entitlement to lead, Michael Bloomberg is the foil of Bernie’s dreams. A race pitting Bernie against Bloomberg would be everything Bernie Sanders has ever dreamed of: justice vs. injustice; the people vs. the oligarch; right vs. wrong.
Had Michael Bloomberg stayed on the sidelines, things might have worked out the way he had hoped, with the nomination of a moderate candidate capable of building a broad coalition of Democrats, independents and a slice of Republicans into the fall campaign against Donald Trump. Perhaps Joe Biden wouldn’t have made it to the finish line, but whatever candidate emerged through the process, Sanders and his supporters would still be faced with the reality that the progressive wing commands far less than a majority within the Democratic Party. The fact remains that an overwhelming majority of Democrats care more about beating Donald Trump than they do about anything else, and a similar overwhelming majority have little faith that Bernie can take them to that promised land.
Bloomberg said all along that he had no plans to enter the race as long as he thought Biden could make a go of it, but then apparently he panicked, jumping in as he did before Joe pulled out. Perhaps history will write that it was all Joe Biden’s fault for refusing to read the tea leaves until it was too late, or perhaps the verdict will be that Bloomberg’s ambitions got the best of him. But however the history may be written, Bloomberg jumped in and stirred the pot, and no one has jumped out. There are a more than a half-dozen candidates heading into South Carolina and Super Tuesday, each more stubbornly determined to stay in than they were a month ago. More to the point, there is one clear frontrunner, but no clear challenger. There is Bernie, well funded and leading the pack, and the rest of them fighting on, even as they each understand that time is getting short if any one of them is to successfully challenge Bernie for the nomination.
Since the Nevada caucuses, arguments among Democrats have raged around final question posed during the Nevada debate: If no candidate makes it to the Democratic National Convention Milwaukee with a majority of the 3,979 delegates needed to secure the nomination, should the candidate with the most delegates, though not a majority, nonetheless be awarded the nomination? To no one’s surprise, all of the candidates on the stage but Bernie Sanders said the rules stipulating that there would be multiple rounds of votes until one candidate secures a majority should govern. Only Sanders argued that the candidate who arrives with a plurality in hand should be handed the nomination.
The irony is that if Sanders walks into Milwaukee with a substantial plurality, but not a majority, of the delegates, it will more likely be a function of the rules working in his favor than some moment of epiphany among moderates that lead them to flock to Bernie’s Revolution. Sander’s support within the party has consistently been in the range of 30–35%, but with the currently split field, that level of support can be decisive. The California primary on Super Tuesday provides a case in point.
Based on the latest California primary polls available on 538.com, Bernie sits atop the field at 30.2%. Clustered twenty points behind him, roughly within the margin of error, are Elizabeth Warren (13.2%), Joe Biden (13.1%), Mike Bloomberg (11.4%) and Pete Buttigieg (9.5%). Based on the party rules, under which no candidate can win delegates if they fail to win 15% of the vote within a congressional district, it is conceivable that Bernie Sanders could win 100% California’s 416 delegates, with less than a third of the vote. Repeat that outcome in a few other large states, and Bernie’s delegate lead could quickly be overwhelming, even if his share of the popular vote remains modest.
Those are the Democratic Party rules, and that is the resulting math that could lead Sanders to win a large plurality of the delegates within a divided primary field. Such an outcome would not constitute anything close to a sweeping popular endorsement. It would, instead, be a victory of the rules vs. the votes, the kind of victory that in another year Bernie would have pointed to as evidence of a rigged system.
A lot may yet change, but so far the clear winners in the dynamics that Michael Bloomberg set in motion have been Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. As of the beginning of February, neither the odds of Trump winning reelection nor of Bernie Sanders winning the Democratic nomination had topped 50% on PredictIt.com. Since the night of the Iowa caucuses, the world has been turned upside down. Over the course of the past three weeks, the odds that Bernie Sanders emerges as the Democratic Party nominee and that Donald Trump wins reelection have risen in tandem, and today they reached perfect harmony. As of this writing, the odds of Bernie wins the primary contest, and that Donald Trump wins reelection in the fall are an identical 57%.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. He is working on a book, with a working title of “FedExit! To Save Our Democracy, It’s Time to Let Alabama Be Alabama and Set California Free.”
Artwork by Joe Dworetzky. Check out Joe’s political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.