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The Democratic debate won't include Michael Bloomberg, but that's still a win for him

He doesn't need hours of pummeling by his opponents when he has the money to buy airtime to promote the message he wants to convey.
Image: Michael Bloomberg
Michael Bloomberg speaks about his plan for clean energy during a campaign event at the Blackwall Hitch restaurant in Alexandria, Va., on Friday.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidates are tripping over themselvesto make their party’s debate stages. But one prominent 2020 Democratic hopeful, Michael Bloomberg, has been rather nonchalant about not qualifying for Thursday night’s debate in Los Angeles and others after that.

Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York simply doesn’t need the hassle, because he has the financial resources to get his name out in myriad other ways. Bloomberg also would surely be a target during a three-hour event featuring seven other candidates that could devolve into a chaotic, noisy brawl. By skipping it, Bloomberg can try to rise above the fray.

Should Democrats nominate Bloomberg, he would relieve the party of serious spending worries. That’s no small concern.

While many inside and outside the Democratic Party have dismissed his prospects, his deep pockets could well make Bloomberg, the three-term mayor of America’s largest city, a compelling figure to a Democratic electorate focused on finding an electable nominee to confront President Donald Trump.

Bloomberg, 77, is worth an estimated $54 billion from his eponymous financial information and news company. He’s pledged to pay for the entire Democratic primary and general election — if he makes it that far — entirely out of pocket.

He has already started. Since joining the overloaded Democratic primary field in November, Bloomberg has committed nearly $250 million to his own campaign advertising and to down-ballot candidates — which could be important in shoring up his Democratic Party credentials after he left the party to run for mayor. He returned to it only last year.

Should Democrats nominate Bloomberg, he would relieve the party of serious spending worries. That’s no small concern, because the Republican National Committee, aided by having a Republican in the White House, had $61.4 million in cash on hand through the last fundraising quarter, compared to the Democratic National Committee’s $8.7 million (plus about $7 million of debt).

Bloomberg would bring to the fall 2020 campaign the resources needed to contest obvious Electoral College battlegrounds, like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — the trio of states that won Trump the 2016 election. It also would give the Democratic ticket financial leeway to compete in emerging targets, such as Arizona and Georgia. And, with favorable political circumstances and a blank check from Bloomberg, even in the long-red bastion of Texas.

These purplish states are also where Bloomberg’s moderate stances are likely to appeal the most. So it’s not a huge stretch to say that money, the key to getting out his message, would be an effective electoral elixir for connecting with general election voters.

Indeed, Bloomberg’s ideological profile is similar to those of top-tier candidates like Joe Biden, the two-term vice president who previously served 36 years as a senator from Delaware, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who are moderately center-left, extolling the virtues of free trade, international alliances and progressive taxation.

What Biden and Buttigieg lack, as do all other Democratic contenders except for billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, is an effectively bottomless bank account. Buttigieg raised $19.1 million in the third quarter, an impressive sum, particularly for a candidate who hasn’t held national office. But it’s only a small fraction of what Bloomberg could throw in on any given day. And Biden raised $15.2 million, a number that has to concern Democrats considering his decades on the national stage.

While left-wing rivals like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have been able to take in healthy money hauls, they, like Biden and Buttigieg, would have to spend considerable time come next fall at fundraisers.

Even Steyer isn’t in the same league as Bloomberg, with his fortune estimated at $1.6 billion. He hasn’t, for instance, been able to invest in the party-building activities of Bloomberg, not to mention that he lacks the latter’s long political résumé.

For Democrats to embrace Bloomberg strictly because he is inoffensively mild-mannered and an effective technocrat who has a huge wallet is, admittedly, a strictly utilitarian, transactional, cold-blooded and utterly unromantic realpolitik approach.

“Hope and change” it’s not. But it would give Democrats their best return on investment when choosing a nominee to face Trump.

Bloomberg’s bottomless bank account would mesh well with Democrats’ hopes of expanding their Electoral College target list. Take Arizona, a key state with its fast-shifting demographics, where Democrats had electoral success in 2018. Its 11 electoral votes would more than offset a repeat loss in Wisconsin, which is, by all accounts, touch and go, as both parties pour in massive resources.

Georgia’s 16 electoral votes — the same as Michigan’s — also are a logical target after Trump won there by about only five points in 2016. Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee could build on the trove of new voters whom Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams attracted in her narrow 2018 loss with his ability to spend freely, according to David McLaughlin, a longtime Georgia Democratic activist.

“If somebody can get the turnout that she got in her race, but then do better in some of the rural areas, that’s going to help you a lot,” McLaughlin said.

Democrats even have a plan to win Texas and its prize of 38 electoral votes, a notion that isn’t inconceivable given the state’s changing demographics and the facts that Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by only 52 percent to 43 percent — the closest margin for a Democratic nominee in decades — and that Democrats made significant gains in the 2018 midterms. Moreover, Bloomberg’s wealth would help the party play defense where necessary. In 2016, Democrats had a close call in Minnesota, which the party has won in every presidential race from 1976 on but which Clinton took by only about 44,000 votes out of more than 2.5 million.

The Trump campaign will also target New Hampshire, a perennial swing state. Trump lost there by less than 3,000 votes in 2016. As he could in Minnesota, Bloomberg could make the electoral investments necessary to prevent such a close result.

Huge bundles of campaign money can’t make voters love Bloomberg. Yet in their search for a Democratic nominee who could beat Trump in 2020, he may be likable enough.

To be sure, the Bloomberg-as-nominee option carries risks. Modern history is littered with the political corpses of self-funded candidates whose financial acumen didn’t translate into voter appeal.

And Democrats have good reason to be wary of picking a nominee who strikes voters as a soulless technocrat, as Bloomberg is sometimes portrayed. Fairly or not, Democratic also-rans like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Clinton came off to voters as stiffs who couldn’t connect with everyday people and offer inspiration. But they all lacked an unlimited pocketbooks to fund their campaigns and help down-ballot candidates.

Huge bundles of campaign money can’t make voters love Bloomberg. Yet in their search for a Democratic nominee who could beat Trump in 2020, he may be likable enough. And jostling to join a crowded debate stage to raise his profile would not be a productive pursuit when he doesn’t need to rely on free media.