The Unexpected Plausibility of Mike Bloomberg

“I am getting really sick of all these Bloomberg ads!”

This was spoken by my 10-year-old son who watches shows on Hulu with his mom and has therefore been exposed, repeatedly, to ads for the presidential campaign of Mike Bloomberg.

When Bloomberg formally entered the race for the Democratic nomination last year, I railed to the heavens (you couldn’t hear me, but trust me, I railed), “WHY?” I don’t have any major objections to Bloomberg as a candidate or potential president, though he’s certainly not one of my top choices. But I simply couldn’t understand what he thought his path to the nomination could possibly be.

I know what the pundits have said, and what the line of the campaign is: Bloomberg can afford (both in terms of money and political capital) to skip the early states, use his wealth to blanket the later states with ads, and eventually squeeze past a muddled field of candidates currently lacking an overwhelming frontrunner, with the promise that his business acumen and aura of competence would seal the deal.

But, you know. Come on.

While technically possible, there is nothing plausible about Bloomberg’s prospects. Polls showed for months that the Democratic electorate was plenty satisfied with its existing options, and that the top four or five candidates regularly bested Trump in head-to-head general election polls, particularly Joe Biden — who Bloomberg would have to totally neutralize to even have a shot at the nomination.

How many times have we seen a late entrance into a presidential primary contest go on to win a party nomination? As we learned from would-be party saviors Wesley Clark, Rick Perry, and Fred Thompson (and eventually Deval Patrick), pretty much never. The fashionably late just don’t get to be president.

But let’s say none of this is the case. Let’s sat a latecomer could in fact ride in and shake everything up and that the Democrats are utterly despondent over their choices. Even then, in what universe does this imply that what progressives really want is the stop-and-frisk, former-Republican, Bush-endorsing, women-belittling, 80-pushing one-tenth-of-one-percenter? Perhaps there was some alternate dimension in which this made sense before the Crisis on Infinite Earths, but not on this Prime Material Plane.

Mike Bloomberg knows all of this. So my only explanations for his decision to run anyway are, one, that he is surrounded by advisors and consultants on his payroll who have a vested interest in convincing him that he will be president, and two, perhaps most importantly, he just really, really wants to be president, and at age 77, this is his last chance.

In recent weeks I’ve finally started to see some of those Bloomberg ads myself, either on social media or, yes, on Hulu. They’re really quite good. They’re not blockbuster, knock-your-socks-off, windsurfing-swiftboat ads that blow up the race, but they’re good. Perhaps the most effective thing about them is how reassuring they are. In general, his ads lightly contrast Bloomberg with a reckless Trump by highlighting Bloomberg’s competence and, well, normalness. They send a message that’s similar to Biden’s, in that they tell you that the country would be back in sane hands under this candidate, only Bloomberg’s ads layer on an actual record of governance. Twelve years as mayor of the city at the center of the universe can provide that kind of record.

Biden, for all his decades in public office, has never really been an executive in the way a mayor or a governor would be, and no one would mistake his role as vice president for that of a buck-stopping decision maker. So his ads rely on character; he’s got it, Trump doesn’t. He’s not wrong.

But without saying it, Bloomberg’s ads communicate that same message, that same feeling. Maybe it’s because I have been so skeptical about Bloomberg’s campaign that my reaction is disproportionate to their actual effect, but I have been very surprised to see how invested he appears in the people he’s shown listening to, how convicted he appears in the candidate-with-voters B-roll that are the standard filling for every political ad.

“That’s a good ad,” I find myself saying out loud. Hmm, I find myself thinking, the field of candidates is still pretty muddled. Hmm, I think, Bloomberg is often polling third and fourth nationally.

Nah. I mean, come on.

But then Iowa happened.

Put aside the procedural shitshow of the caucus tabulation debacle. What the Iowa caucuses showed us was that the race is a mess. Nationally, Sanders and Biden are wrestling for a small plurality to claim the top spot, with an undulating rotation of Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang in the next few slots. Sanders people will always be Sanders people no matter what, but the rest of the field has not been sufficiently winnowed to clarify who Sanders’ prime challengers are. Maybe it’s Joe Biden, maybe it’s eventually Pete Buttigieg, but it’s no clearer today than it was a week ago.

By the looks of the final alignment results, as I type this on February 4, Joe Biden wound up with a pretty bad fourth place showing in Iowa. He was never banking on an Iowa win, but a distant fourth-place finish is pretty damned embarrassing for the erstwhile national frontrunner and former vice president.

Pete Buttigieg’s showing was the breakout of the night, for whether or not he “won,” he certainly wrestled Sanders to a functional tie. But he’s polling in single digits nationally. Unless Iowa has an impact on voters that is even more outsized than usual, I don’t see how he turns a tied-for-first-but-technically-second-place showing into meteoric rise. And I suspect there’s not going to be a lot of bounce to be had out of this particular Iowa caucus.

I don’t really get what’s happening with Elizabeth Warren. It seems like the voters all really like her a lot, but too few of them are willing to cast their lot with her. I think that’s a huge shame and a big loss for all of us.

This is all to say that where I once did not see an opening for Mike Bloomberg, now I think I might. Skipping Iowa certainly seems to have proven to have been a net plus for his campaign, though also missing New Hampshire seems like an unforced error. That’s a whole other week of coverage in which he won’t be part of the conversation about who will be the next president.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, and if so, that’s largely because of his money. (It’s also because of his name recognition, as everyone knows who Mike Bloomberg is, and hardly anyone recognizes Tom Steyer, the other billionaire.) For all the media that Bloomberg won’t earn, he’ll buy, ten-fold. He’s already run a Superbowl ad and is reportedly planning to double his already gargantuan ad spending in the coming weeks. If his polls go up soon, he’ll qualify for the debates after New Hampshire, and I suspect that even after New Hampshire votes, we won’t be much closer to knowing who Bernie Sanders’ real competition is. That’s a good spot for Bloomberg to find himself in.

And here’s what might be the biggest thing. Bloomberg obviously wants to be president badly. Those other late-arrival candidates I mentioned earlier were largely ushered into the race by draft campaigns and twitchy party insiders. They didn’t jump in because of an insatiable desire to become President of the United States. Bloomberg’s got that desire, and one should never underestimate the guy who just wants it more.

It remains the case that Bloomberg’s chances at being the Democratic candidate to take on President Trump are incredibly slim, requiring a near-perfect falling-domino execution to create the circumstances for his ultimate nomination. But for the first time, I can see it.

I personally support Elizabeth Warren. My 7-year-old daughter agrees, and even more strongly, often screaming “WOOOOO ELIZABETH!!!!” when the election comes up in conversation — which it does a lot in my house. My 10-year-old son has found a lot to like about several candidates, and I think he misses Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris. But the other day, as I’m driving him home from a lesson, he started asking me to tell him about Mike Bloomberg.

Those are some good ads.