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Don’t count out Michael Bloomberg — his unconventional strategy might work

Michael Bloomberg’s entry into the presidential race about a week ago was panned almost universally. Political pundits dismissed his bid, many with trite “truisms” about political tradecraft. First, that money can’t buy the presidency. Second, that his late entry is fatal. Third, that by skipping the first four contests, he will fall hopelessly behind. Fourth, his policy stands are all over the map, so he has no natural following or base.

But maybe Bloomberg has a strategy. After all, if he’s so dumb, why’s he so rich? Let’s hazard some thoughts on possible strategy. Maybe Bloomberg is crazy like a fox.

First, let’s be realistic, his $50 billion provides him a tremendous advantage.

Second, pundits have deemed his late entry to be fatal, as if late entry alone were as fatal as stage four pancreatic cancer. What has passed as analysis has been limited to references to the failure of other late entrants. Yet, none of the referenced candidates had Bloomberg’s money, and virtually all failed for reasons other than late entry — and the same reasons have felled early entrants.  

In 2016, late entrant Rick Perry was felled by momentary brain freeze about the third in his trademark list of three federal agencies he’d shutter. However, the earliest entrant in the 1968 contest, George Romney, was eliminated well into his campaign by just one word, “brainwashed,” and in 1972 another early contender, Ed Muskie, by a single sob on the campaign trail just days before the New Hampshire primary. 

Third, skipping the first four contests has an obvious and compelling rationale. To flip a popular saying: You can’t lose it if you’re not in it. This is a variant of the successful strategy of American revolutionaries: They ran away to fight another day. Bloomberg will survive the first four contests. Every other candidate, except four at most, won’t.

There are virtually no delegates at stake in these early contests — just 4 percent of the total. The winner(s) of those contests will have virtually nothing to show for the enormous effort entailed, except bragging rights, which then must be defended in the next of the four contests to meet elevated expectations and to maintain momentum. 

Bloomberg won’t have lost any meaningful ground, unless one candidate rolls the table, winning all four early contests. What are the odds of that? South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has surged into the lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, but is mired in single digits in the following contest in South Carolina, where former vice president Joe Biden holds a commanding 19-point lead.

If Bloomberg hasn’t lost anything, what has he gained by skipping the first four contests? Here it gets interesting. 

First and foremost, he can focus exclusively on the one contest that really matters, Super Tuesday on March 3, a 14-state contest with more than 35 percent of all delegates at stake. This contest is as fateful as the Ides of March. Focusing on this contest is having your eye on the ball. It is fair to say that everything else is a distraction — the preceding four contests and everything thereafter.

This battleground is uniquely well-suited to Bloomberg. He has the money to compete anywhere and everywhere, all at the same time. No other candidate does. Even if they did, they can’t devote meaningful time, much less exclusive focus, because their viability depends upon winning in the earlier contests. 

While the other candidates are tied down in the first four, Bloomberg will be hard at work in Super Tuesday states for three full months — December, January and February. 

He will neither have sustained a loss nor lost momentum. Everything will be in the offing. Yes, he will be measured by the polls, but most pollsters and the media will focus on the early states and the national outlook, not the future contests in the 14 scattered states of Super Tuesday. The polling across this crazy-quilt of states will be relatively spotty. Moreover, starting in low single digits, Bloomberg has nowhere to go but up.

So, Bloomberg will be the great unknown. His candidacy likely will generate mounting suspense and fascination; it may turn out to be more compelling than the momentum by which the other candidates will live or die. 

Fourth, those who say he has no base or following among voters ignore that this could be an advantage. If opponents can’t define him, they can’t really attack him. He may be the ultimate shape-shifter that no one can target effectively, and he won’t be in the debates, the only forum in which opponents can land a meaningful punch. In contrast, everyone knows that frontrunners Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are hard-left progressives. Mayor Pete is attractive, but woefully inexperienced. Biden? He is running on his Obama-Biden record, a very well defined profile and target.

Finally, Bloomberg has been called uncharismatic and boring. Maybe after President Obama’s ineffectual eloquence — race relations deteriorated despite his impressive oratory on the subject — and President Trump’s constant turmoil, Bloomberg’s undramatic, “steady Eddie,” get-things-done character may be just what Americans yearn for.

So, perhaps Bloomberg’s bid isn’t as fanciful a venture as many pundits seem to think. Even if it fails, it is not without a solid strategic rationale. Don’t count out Mayor Mike.

As appeared in The Hill on Dec. 3, 2019.


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