Mike Bloomberg bets on zigging while other presidential candidates are zagging

A late entrant into the Democratic presidential race, the former New York City mayor is making a billion-dollar bet that the old rules no longer apply.
Image: Michael Bloomberg
Mike Bloomberg speaks during a campaign event at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Feb. 12, 2020.Doug Strickland / Reuters

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By Josh Lederman, Maura Barrett and Amanda Golden

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Mike Bloomberg had an unusual request for the hundred or so supporters waiting patiently in the rain: Please go home.

It was an overflow crowd outside from the overflow crowd inside. Inside the Chattanooga African American Museum behind him, 500 people were awaiting the former New York mayor. Another 400 who couldn't fit filled up a second room, where his campaign arranged television screens to pipe in his speech.

So, for the remaining few getting soaked outside, Bloomberg cut them loose. He said his campaign could simply email them his speech instead.

"Don't get too cold," he said.

Late to the game but flush with endless amounts of cash, Bloomberg is running a campaign that bears almost no resemblance to that of any other 2020 candidate. If there are rules for winning the White House, Bloomberg is making a billion-dollar bet that in the America that elected Donald Trump president, the rules no longer matter.

Compete in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other early states? Bloomberg has skipped them entirely, instead creating a lane unto himself in the states that vote on Super Tuesday — March 3.

Building grassroots support $3 at a time through endless fundraising emails? Unnecessary when you're worth more than $60 billion.

Spending hours a day answering questions from voters, posing for selfies or sitting for television interviews? Why bother when you can plant yourself directly in people's living rooms by way of hundreds of millions spent on television ads.

"You've all heard the slogan, 'Mike will get it done.' And if you haven't, I've been spending an awful lot of money to get it out there,'" Bloomberg said last week at a coffee shop in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his staff arranged a full stage, a podium and professional lighting for his half-hour visit.

But if Bloomberg has managed until now to write his own rules for the campaign, that may become harder Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he'll take the debate stage for the first time after qualifying at the last minute.

Bloomberg's Democratic rivals have argued that he's escaped the kind of scrutiny applied to them and made it clear they plan to change that in the debate.

As he's ascended in the national polls, Bloomberg's flood-the-zone approach to campaigning has elicited growing complaints from his rivals that he's trying to purchase the Oval Office. It's a notion anathema to the part of the Democratic base animated this year by concerns about creeping oligarchy and the outsize role of money in American politics.

"We may be old-fashioned, but what we believe in is democracy, one person, one vote. Not billionaires buying elections," Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said as he rallied 3,000 supporters last week.

Yet in a matter of weeks, Bloomberg's strategy has thrust him into serious contention for the Democratic nomination, backed up by a well-paid army of more than 2,100 people he's hired for a campaign operation unprecedented in the history of U.S. elections.

It's also allowed Bloomberg, who has yet to win a single delegate, to project the aura of a candidate who's already won his party's nomination and is running against the incumbent president.

While the other Democrats argue with one another over the merits of their various records and plans, Bloomberg has trained almost all his fire on Trump, gleefully trolling the president over his comparatively smaller net worth.

"We know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown," Bloomberg tweeted back after Trump mocked his short stature. "They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence."

So far, Democrats seem split over whether they're bothered by Bloomberg's use of his fortune to do what a less wealthy candidate could never hope to do.

On a chilly morning in Carson City, Nevada, Heidi Microulis was waiting tables at the Squeeze In cafe when Sanders walked in for breakfast before his rally nearby. As she followed Sanders out the door to snap a photo, she said his criticism of Bloomberg's lavish spending resonated.

"I like a candidate that is running his own campaign with the help of the communities, instead of just coming in with the big bucks," said Microulis, who said she's still unsure how she'll vote in the caucuses.

Two thousand miles away in Chattanooga, Democratic voter Gerry Meyer shrugged.

"I think he's spending his money in the right way," Meyer said. "I don't look at him as being a person who's spending a lot of money who's in it for himself. I see him spending his money to better the rest of it for us."

On the campaign trail, Bloomberg rarely bothers with the usual formalities of retail politicking. He rolls in, speaks for 15 or 20 minutes and leaves. He rarely takes questions from voters the way the other Democrats routinely have done in town halls as they've crisscrossed the early states.

Every aspect of every rally is elaborately produced, with artistic, TV-friendly backdrops and the kind of technical resources it took the other campaigns months to learn they needed.

His events run like clockwork, timed down to the minute, creating an atmosphere more reminiscent of his multibillion-dollar financial data business than the chaotic, seat-of-your-pants environment that typically characterizes a primary campaign.

Then, there's the free stuff.

At any other 2020 Democrat's events, you're lucky to get a bottle of water or maybe a cookie with the candidate's logo frosted on top.

Bloomberg's events are fully catered affairs — breakfast pastries in the morning, cheese boards and refreshments in the afternoons. In Nashville, Tennessee, last week, a thousand supporters lined up at three sets of tables for massive spreads of barbecue pork and chicken, potato salad and sweet tea as country music bands rocked out onstage.

At an event at a brewery in Richmond, Virginia, a group of gun rights supporters showed up, telling NBC News they despised Bloomberg but had come for the free beer.

The campaign "swag" — T-shirts, pins and stickers that other candidates sell to raise money — are free at Bloomberg's events. The idea is that attendees leaving in clothes bearing Bloomberg's red-and-blue logo will become walking advertisements for the candidate.

In skipping the early contests, Bloomberg is taking advantage of the fact that until recently, his rivals have been holed up in a few early states whose combined delegates make up a small fraction of those needed to win the nomination. In the rest of the country, voters for the most part are seeing Bloomberg and no one else.

So, while the rest of the candidates are laser-focused on Saturday's caucuses in Nevada and the South Carolina primary that follows, Bloomberg has been putting in time in states such as Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina and Texas.

"He's the first one that I recall coming to Chattanooga of the Democrats," Jackie Moon, a lifelong Tennessee resident, said as she waited for Bloomberg to take the stage.

Bloomberg's rivals have taken notice of his quick rise to double digits in the national polls and in surveys of several Super Tuesday states — and they have started attacking him with a ferocity they never displayed toward any of their other fellow Democratic candidates.

With Bloomberg's success has come an intense level of scrutiny and rapid-fire vetting in the form of daily revelations about past comments that his opponents have seized on to cast him as racist, misogynistic and hostile to the poor.

Over just a few days, old recordings have emerged of Bloomberg defending the "stop-and-frisk" policing policy he oversaw in New York City and describing minority communities as disproportionately rife with crime. Years-old allegations of sexist or discriminatory treatment of women in his company have resurfaced, as have past comments he made questioning the efficacy of raising taxes on the wealthy — a key pillar of his economic platform.

"He's going to have to answer for that and speak to it," said Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took it further, saying Bloomberg's past comments on redlining — a policy used to discriminate against minority homebuyers — had made it clear he was "not someone who should be representing our party."

Bloomberg is betting that voters are willing to overlook a lot — if they think he and his billions can defeat Trump. If voters don't take that bet, he could end up mounting the most expensive failed campaign in history.

Deb Childs, who showed up at the Richmond brewery not fully sold on Bloomberg, felt he'd made mistakes with stop-and-frisk and said she'd heard allegations about issues with women. But she said she was "willing to give him a bye, because I feel like he has a brain and he can hear me."

"I told some of my friends: 'Yes, he's made mistakes. But if we drink the poison and don't forgive him, we can all die,'" Childs said. "Four more years of Donald Trump is not an option."