Bloomberg’s Billions Can’t Buy Love

Mega-billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to knock out fellow Gotham Goliath, Donald Trump, to become the next US President. The self funded media tycoon has poured half a billion dollars of his own money. He is third in national polls. Can he make it? Nationally celebrated and most read opinion columnist of the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, weighs in.

A septuagenarian billionaire with dubious ties to his political party and a history of sexism runs for president by shattering norms on social media, resisting the release of his tax returns, and playing fast and loose with the truth.

I wrote in 2016 that if such a man – Donald J. Trump – secured the Republican nomination, I would eat my column. The result: a multi-course meal of newsprint:

So, I will not dismiss the possibility that Michael Bloomberg – who also fits all the above criteria – could win the Democratic nomination in 2020. But it will be much more difficult for him than it was for Trump in 2016.

Bloomberg’s assets, particularly his financial ones, are considerable. The information-industry mogul poured nearly $500 million of his own money into his campaign in the last three months, as his filings show. With a net worth of about $60 billion, the former Republican mayor of New York City can dwarf the spending by all others, including Trump. He has hired 500 online personalities at $2,500 apiece, per month, to promote his campaign on social media. He has shown, like Trump, a willingness to operate outside the usual bounds of behavior, issuing a doctored video of a debate that put him in a more flattering light than, in reality, it did. 

All of his spending – and the attendant media coverage — has caused him to surge to a 15% share of the primary vote in national polling — third, overall, behind Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. Bloomberg has achieved this despite entering the race late and declining to contest the four earliest states to vote. Bloomberg’s theory of the race — that he would become the mainstream, moderate alternative to Sanders if Biden’s candidacy implodes — has so far appeared to be a good bet. He’s picked up the support of everybody from TV personality Judge Judy to eccentric actor Clint Eastwood.

But then came Bloomberg’s disastrous performance in his first presidential debate last Wednesday, when he spoke too little and what he said was unhelpful, making him sound as if he were boasting about his wealth. Worse for the former mayor, Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, the third state to vote in the primary season, showed that Sanders’s support is spreading beyond liberal white Democrats to African Americans, Latinos and older voters. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found Sanders gaining among moderate and conservative Democrats, only narrowly trailing Biden and Bloomberg among this group.

The problem for Bloomberg is there may not be enough time to establish himself as the mainstream alternative to Sanders by March 3rd, Super Tuesday — the single biggest day of voting in the primary process. Sanders has about 29% support in the polls (the other hard-left candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has 13), while the moderate candidates are splitting the vote: Biden (17 ); Bloomberg (15); former South Bend, Indian Mayor Pete Buttigieg (10); and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (6). On paper, more voters favor a moderate nominee; in practice, it isn’t happening.

If Bloomberg’s billions can’t change that in the coming days, then Democrats’ fate could be sealed: Either Sanders goes on to win the nomination outright, or he comes so close that his angry supporters turn against the ultimate nominee, assuring Trump’s victory.

If we’ve learned anything in the Trump era, it’s that. Predictions are useless. But if there’s one candidate in the Democratic field who appears to be having success applying the Trump playbook, it isn’t Trump’s fellow New York billionaire. It’s a 78-year-old Socialist from Vermont with a heart condition. In 2016, mainstream Republican voters splintered support among the various candidates — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Chris Christie — and none emerged as a consensus alternative to Trump who vanquished them all, one by one. The same is in danger of happening to Democrats with Sanders.

For the moment, at least, Democratic voters appear to be concluding that the way to fight the Republican Party’s swing to the populist Right under Trump is not to appeal to the moderate middle with Bloomberg, but to take the Democratic Party to the populist Left under Sanders.

Like Trump, Sanders has a passionate army of supporters. Like Trump, he gets away with things ordinary politicians can’t. Like Trump, he harnesses anger.

These are things Bloomberg’s billions can’t buy.


Dana Milbank is Op-ed columnist for the Washington Post covering national politics. He graduated from Yale University. He also provides political commentary for various TV outlets, and he is author of three books on politics, including the national bestseller “Homo Politicus.”

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