Photo: Mario Tamp / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Who’s afraid of Michael Bloomberg?

So far, the biggest loser of the Democratic primary has been the Democratic party

Virginia is a good place for Michael Bloomberg to make the case for his presidential candidacy. In a cavernous glass hall in Richmond, the state capital, on Saturday night, Bloomberg — or “mike” as his team have decided to style him for the Presidential run — tried to persuade a vast audience at the annual Virginia Democrats’ gala dinner of his Trump-beating credentials.

As with all things Bloomberg, the first reason this audience is willing to listen to the billionaire former Republican mayor of New York City is money. The media mogul has showered funds on Democratic candidates in the state in recent years, including ahead of last year’s elections, in which the party turned both the House of Delegates and the Senate blue for the first time in a quarter of a century. According to the Washington Post, Bloomberg has spent $6 million boosting Democrats in the state since 2011 mostly through his climate change and gun safety PACs. Bloomberg’s nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety outspent the Virginia-based National Rifle Association by eight to one in the state last year.

Democrats in this state, which holds its primary on March 3 as part of Super Tuesday, don’t just understand the power of Bloomberg’s pocket, but the importance of winning. That might sound obvious, but there is no shortage of divisive proposals that could help Donald Trump secure re-election on offer in this primary. Virginia is a reminder that the merits of one candidate’s healthcare plan or another’s fracking ban is academic if you don’t win. Since regaining control of the both houses, Virginia Democrats have been on a legislative spree, with hyperactivity on a range of progressive fronts: the minimum wage, climate change, gender equality, gun safety and more.   

“This progress you’ve made didn’t happen overnight,” Bloomberg said to the assembled state politicians, aides, donors, consultants, lobbyists and other hangers on. “It happened because people in this room believed a red commonwealth could become a blue commonwealth.”

As Bloomberg tells it, a worry that others had taken the eye off the main prize is what prompted him to run for President. “I got into this race 11 weeks ago because I was deeply concerned that Donald Trump was on track to win re-election and I could not sit by and let that happen,” he said.  “I want to be very clear why I am in this race: I am running to defeat Donald Trump, to restore honour to our government and to build a country we are proud of — to start getting things done.”

The Bloomberg model of political success involves tacking to the centre, annoying both ends of the political spectrum in the process. The boisterous scene outside the Richmond event pointed to a high score for Bloomberg on the technocrat’s annoying-all-the-right-people-ometer.

As the well-heeled and well-connected crowd made their way into the event, several groups of protesters made themselves heard. On one patch of pavement a huddle of men, some sporting flak jackets and brandishing AR-15s, demonstrated their opposition to Bloomberg’s support for greater regulation of gun ownership — and Virginia’s Democratic-controlled legislature’s effort to tighten up the state’s gun laws. “GUNS SAVE LIVES” read the sticker handed to me by one second amendment advocate. A few yards away, a very different group of protestors who were there for a quarrel about the definition of a “real Democrat”. Needless to say that to these leftists, Bloomberg doesn’t make the cut (though Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is not a member of the party whose nomination he seeks, definitely does).

The attention being granted to Bloomberg — by these protesters, by the Virginia Democratic establishment, and by the national media — is evidence that, at a crucial point in the primary process, he is having a moment. Since entering the race, his unlikely and unprecedented shot at the nomination has gone about as well as he could have hoped. The failure of any single candidate to emerge as the pre-eminent moderate alternative to Bernie Sanders, the left-wing frontrunner, has given him a window. While the rest of the field have been travelling between small early-voting states, where conventional wisdom, and budgets, demand a strong showing, Bloomberg has lavished eye-watering amounts of money on advertising in large, populous Super Tuesday states, including delegate-rich Texas and California. The numbers involved dwarf the budgets of even a very well-funded primary run. The $300 million spent on advertising by Bloomberg so far is on a par than the entire advertising spend of Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and the amount spent to get Trump elected in 2016. He has lured an army of top Democratic strategists to his team, voters at his campaign stops are treated to free food and t-shirts. And the splurge appears to be working, with FiveThirtyEight’s polling average putting him on 16 per cent in national surveys, neck-and-neck with Joe Biden — the former frontrunner who is haemorrhaging support after anaemic performances in Iowa and New Hampshire. That arguably makes Bloomberg the moderate best-placed to catch Sanders, whose route to the nomination is considerably clearer than anyone else’s.   

But the Bloomberg campaign hit a big bump in the road on Wednesday night, when the candidate made his debut on the debate stage in Las Vegas. So far, Bloomberg’s message has been tightly controlled, disseminated through slick advertising and pre-prepared stump speeches without much unscripted interaction with voters. And his uncertain debate performance showed why. His rivals for the nomination wasted no time in feasting on the fresh meat. Minutes into proceedings, Elizabeth Warren delivered a brutal line: “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against. We’re talking about a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump, I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.” In another mauling, the Massachusetts senator asked Bloomberg about nondisclosure agreements silencing women who worked for his media organisation. “I did nothing more than tell a joke that they maybe didn’t like,” was the underwhelming response.

His toxic support for stop and frisk, past pronouncements on Obamacare, a former life as a Republican and his use of money to muscle his way into the race were all given air time. Throughout the evening, Bloomberg oozed the condescension and exasperation of someone more comfortable with Davos toss-up questions than the cut and thrust of a Presidential primary. “Black and Bloom” reads the front of today’s New York Post alongside a picture of Bloomberg with a black eye and bruises.

For all his promises of a return to normalcy, the Bloomberg candidacy is no such thing

The debate was a reminder that for all his promises of a return to normalcy, the Bloomberg candidacy is no such thing. One of America’s richest men and the owner of a major media organisation spending billions to get himself into the Oval Office would not be business as usual. However, the extent to which Bloomberg’s poor showing will dent his chances is hard to say. A primetime flub undoubtedly undercuts Bloomberg’s central promise that he can beat Trump, even if many millions more voters are being bombarded by his advertisements than tuned in to see the debate for themselves.

More certain is the fact that, so far, the primary’s biggest loser has been the Democratic party. Not that long ago, the contest looked set to be an exhibition of the best the party had to offer: elder statesmen, seasoned senators and hot prospects battling for the support of energised voters before unifying behind a mission of generational importance: making sure Donald Trump a one-term president. Instead, it is quickly morphing into a battle between two outsiders that do not belong in the same party. A bottom-up far-left revolution led by a Senator with a platform certain to turn off millions of moderate voters or a semi-hostile takeover by a billionaire former Republican. It is a nightmare dliemma for the Democratic establishment. 

Even if the Bloomberg moment passes, it has likely starved the other Stop Bernie” candidates of enough oxygen to deliver a fatal blow to the democratic socialist. Either way, the possibility that the Democrats arrive at their convention in Milwaukee in July without any candidate in possession of a majority of delegates grows more likely by the day. And it is hard to see how the party emerges from that scenario in one piece.

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