Is Mike Bloomberg a Day Late and a Billion Short?
He had a great run as Mayor of New York but has strained ties with minorities.
November 12, 2019
Mike Bloomberg could be the savior that moderate Democrats are looking for, if Joe Biden continues to lose steam. Bloomberg could appeal to them as a Bill Clinton-like blend of fiscal conservative and liberal on social issues. Still, it’s pretty late to jump into the ball game.
Other candidates have been barnstorming the country for almost a year, meeting voters, setting up campaign organizations in key states and raising funds. Bloomberg doesn’t have to worry about money, at least in the primaries, but campaigns also require large amounts of time, staff and volunteers. Other candidates have already snapped up most of the best talent and set up extensive field operations. So Bloomberg faces daunting logistical challenges, and other obstacles, despite his impressive record as a politician and a philanthropist.
Bloomberg is reportedly considering skipping the first four contests, since the Iowa caucuses will happen on February 1, less than three months from now, and the primaries in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina all take place in February. Instead, Bloomberg would spend heavily on TV ads, digital marketing and presumably rallies to win primaries in California and other large states on Super Tuesday, March 3.
Skipping primaries is high-risk
That is a very high-risk strategy. Candidates focus on early states like Iowa and New Hampshire to generate a sense of momentum and garner more press coverage. Both are crucial for attracting more support from donors and voters and for firing up volunteers in other key states. Maybe journalists do treat the caucuses and primaries too much like horse races: who’s ahead, who’s likely to win, who’s visiting more towns, etc. But those are the stories that people want to hear about.
If Bloomberg sits out the first four races, he will get less attention from the media, even if he qualifies for the televised debates. Reporters will concentrate on the four to five leading candidates, as they duke it out in the primaries state by state. Bloomberg might struggle to build excitement and momentum and spread his message.
It’s also crucial for candidates to have “retail” contact with voters in the early states, so they can learn what issues voters care about, which applause lines work… and which fall flat. These races are a key testing ground for a candidate’s ideas and campaigning skills. This could be particularly important for Bloomberg, who last ran for office 10 years ago.
A possible “savior” for moderates
Bloomberg could be a strong candidate, given his accomplishments in government and his liberal stance on most social issues. That’s particularly true for moderate Democrats who are worried, if not scared, by Elizabeth Warren’s rise in the polls and mega-trillion-dollar plans for social programs. Mayor Pete Buttigieg certainly is an option for moderate Democrats. Still, Buttigieg faces concerns about his lack of national experience and his inability so far to connect with black voters.
However, Bloomberg faces some possible drawbacks as a candidate:
- He is 77 years old, in the same zip code as Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Sanders (78)
- He is relatively short, at 5’ 7” (one inch less than Elizabeth Warren, six inches less than Donald Trump)
- He is Jewish
- He is fabulously wealthy, with a net worth of about $57 billion
Still, Bloomberg is a dynamic 77-year old. Up close, he has a commanding presence. I met Mike Bloomberg in a small meeting with a client a couple of years ago, when I worked at Bloomberg LLP. Bloomberg was very articulate and persuasive; he showed a laser-like focus on the client’s interests. (I no longer have any relationship with the company.)
Bloomberg is not warm and fuzzy as he walks around the company’s headquarters. Reserved and aloof, he is not given to small talk. However, Bloomberg is an accomplished public speaker, and he has inspired great loyalty and respect among the senior managers at his company. Bloomberg is in good shape physically, with a brisk walk. Unlike Joe Biden, he is crisp and clear in his remarks.
A Democrat, not a “Republican billionaire”
Bloomberg has pondered running for President for many years. But he recognized the possible hurdles, including his religion, early on. In 2007, he asked, “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming President?”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House in 2016. Bernie Sanders, a Jew raised in Brooklyn, ran for President and virtually no one cared about his religious background. Instead, commentators focused on his socialist views. In that sense Sanders performed a service for the nation, as he apparently took that issue off the table for Presidential candidates.
And let’s dispose of the notion that Bloomberg is a “Republican billionaire”. He’s been a Democrat for most of his life. When he ran for Mayor of New York City in 2001, Bloomberg switched to the Republican Party for tactical reasons; there was no opening in the Democratic primary. He remained a Republican for only four years, registering as an independent in 2005, and he became a Democrat officially again in 2018.
Bloomberg has shown his true colors as a forceful advocate, both as a mayor and a philanthropist, on key issues such as gun control, climate change, immigration reform and abortion rights. Through his foundation, Bloomberg has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to support the first two causes, as well as others. He has also pledged to give away half of his fortune to charity. So Bloomberg’s not trying to “buy the election” to avoid a billionaire’s tax, as some candidates have insinuated.
A great track record, but some baggage, too
Bloomberg could appeal to moderate and conservative Democrats who are worried about by Sen. Warren’s spending plans and lack of executive experience. Bloomberg is a fiscal conservative; they won’t have to worry about him proposing a $21 trillion-dollar plan to fund Medicare for All. As Mayor, Bloomberg raised taxes to balance the budget, taking it from a $6 billion deficit to a $3 billion surplus. A former Wall Street executive, Bloomberg is pro-business, though, and he later reduced property taxes.
Bloomberg also supports free trade. That might cause him problems with labor unions. But his stance would be a welcome alternative to Warren and Sanders’ protectionism and Trump’s misguided trade wars.
The mayor ran an efficient and scandal-free administration, unlike his successor, Bill de Blasio. With his background in finance and technology, Bloomberg brought a disciplined, data-dependent approach to making government decisions. He attracted a top-notch staff. Bloomberg launched several initiatives that improved life in the city, such as banning smoking in restaurants, creating more pedestrian oases in midtown, and launching the Citibike program, among others.
However, Bloomberg over-reached at times, as when he tried to ban super-sized soft drinks and to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in New York City, which would have been a logistical nightmare. And there is one legacy that will haunt New Yorkers for decades: Mayor Bloomberg pushed hard for the construction of the ultra-thin, ultra-high skyscrapers for the ultra-rich that are now rising in midtown. The mayor did not ask for the voters’ opinion on this dramatic change in the city’s skyline.
Possible Achilles heel: “stop and frisk” program
One of Bloomberg’s initiatives as mayor could create serious problems for him in a campaign. Bloomberg championed the practice of “stop and frisk” as he sought to cut the crime rate in New York City. Under this program, police officers could frisk someone if they had a reasonable suspicion that he was dangerous (but not a search warrant). This practice mushroomed during Bloomberg’s administration, generating a lot of resentment in black and Latino neighborhoods, where the police concentrated their stop and frisks.
Bloomberg defended the tactic by pointing out that most homicides occurred in those very neighborhoods and that many NYC cops are black or Latino. Although murders did decline, however, it’s not clear that trend was directly correlated with the sharp jump in frisks. Eventually, in response to criticism, Bloomberg slashed the frisks by 90%.
Nonetheless, this issue remains a sore point with many blacks and Latinos. This week Charles Blow of The New York Times demonstrated the possible threat to Bloomberg’s candidacy with an op-ed piece entitled “You Must Never Vote for Bloomberg”. Blow referred to Bloomberg’s “notoriously racist stop-and-frisk program” and his “terror campaign against…young black and Hispanic men”. Blow also seemed to imply that Bloomberg was as racist as Donald Trump.
Blow’s rhetoric seems over-the-top. Bloomberg has not given any other indications of racist views, and he scaled back the program dramatically. On Still, if he hits the campaign trail, the former mayor will have some explaining to do.