What Does Michael Bloomberg Think He’s Doing?

The former mayor could go down as the white knight of establishment Democrats, a secret agent for democratic socialism, or a real-world experiment in the limits of plutocracy.

Michael Bloomberg

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.

Michael Bloomberg built his business and political career on the accumulation and analysis of data, which is the fossil record of history—of precedent. Which makes it all the more unusual that his road to the presidency doesn’t have any.

His self-funded campaign? “Unprecedented,” says The New York Times. His gambit to ignore every primary and caucus in the month of February to plow hundreds of millions of dollars into a Super Tuesday ad blitz in March? “Unprecedented,” says Fox News. And the reaction from those ad-blighted Super Tuesday states? The Texas Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer have a word for it, and you can bet it starts with a U. In polling averages, Bloomberg’s national support hovers around 8 percent—not terrible for a candidate who’s been in the race just over 70 days, but considerably behind front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

So what in the world is Bloomberg doing? Here are five ways to think about his campaign.

1. It’s a brilliant and farsighted strategy that will save the Democratic Party—for moderates, at least.

Bloomberg jumped into the race as a moderate alternative after a series of polls, including one from the Times, showed the leading Democratic candidates statistically tied with, or running behind, Donald Trump in six battleground states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina.

Bloomberg’s plan isn’t just based on his certainty that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too left-wing to win a general election. It’s also predicated on a certain Biden Hypothesis. That hypothesis goes something like this: Despite his standing in national polls, Biden is a weak and possibly doomed front-runner. His fundraising woes—in the last quarter, he raised less than Sanders or Pete Buttigieg—are symptoms of a deeper crisis: an inability to inspire crowds, or convincingly win debates, or generate sufficient enthusiasm to make it through a long primary contest.

If Biden sweeps most of the early states on his way to a delegate majority, he will pretty much explode this theory. But as of February 1, polling averages suggest that Biden could lose Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, in which case, by March, a self-described socialist will likely be the clear front-runner in a party whose torchbearers don’t like that sort of thing. In this plausible future, moderate establishment Democrats will seek out the one smart, dependable, and authoritative leader who already has a massive national operation.

And who will be there, with open arms and an open wallet, backed by a $50 billion fortune, and ready to consolidate the moderate vote within the Democratic primary? Mr. Unprecedented.

2. It’s an ego trip that will accidentally hand the Democratic primary to Sanders.

Bloomberg might think he’s building a catastrophic-insurance plan for establishment Democrats. But what if he’s actually killing the patient?

Bloomberg is flooding Super Tuesday states with advertisements explicitly—and often effectively—designed to appeal to Biden’s constituency of older, moderate voters while offering no direct critique of Sanders. Little surprise, then, that his campaign now seems to be taking support from Biden. In fact, data from Quinnipiac polling shows that most of Bloomberg’s support would otherwise go to Biden.

Another unintended consequence of Bloomberg’s ad blitz is that he’s driving up the price of 30-second spots for other candidates, or locking them out of TV entirely. Because Sanders has more money than any other viable non-Bloomberg candidate, ad inflation benefits him relative to Biden.

In the footrace between Biden and Sanders, then, Bloomberg has effectively screamed “I’m here to help!” before leaping onto Biden’s back, slowing the front-runner’s already feeble momentum, even as Sanders continues to race forward without impediment. If the senator from Vermont ekes out a primary victory over a divided and disjointed moderate coalition, the establishment could well fault Bloomberg for helping to nominate a socialist.

3. It’s a public-relations disaster for a Democratic Party trying to keep leftists and moderates in harmony.

The Democratic National Committee has insisted that to qualify for its official debates, candidates must surpass a donor threshold. Since Bloomberg isn’t accepting donations, those rules have so far barred him from the debate stage.

But on Friday, after Bloomberg moved into fourth place in national polling averages, the DNC junked its donor-threshold rule for the February 19 debate in Nevada. This opens the door for Bloomberg’s participation—and to complaints of preferential treatment for a Johnny-come-lately billionaire who doesn’t deserve it.

Beyond process issues, the debate itself could be—to use a technical term—super awkward: The billionaire mayor will have used his fortune to gain entry into a debate about whether such extreme wealth should be taxed into extinction. Perhaps a showdown between Bloomberg and Sanders will produce a valuable discussion on the merits of lucrative entrepreneurship versus radical redistribution. Or it could widen the rift between older, cautious, anti-socialist moderates and young, fierce, anti-plutocratic revolutionaries.

4. It’s a real-world political-science experiment showing the limits of advertising in national elections.

For decades, political scientists have been researching whether and how political advertising changes voters’ opinions. In the Bloomberg campaign—along with fellow billionaire Tom Steyer’s campaign—they have a remarkable real-world experiment. The two men have collectively spent nearly $300 million on advertising alone.

And so far, you could argue that this experiment has been a failure.

Across the Super Tuesday states, Bloomberg has spent $91 million, 13 times the amount spent by candidates not named Steyer. And what does he have to show for it? Not a single top-three placement in any of them, according to the latest public polls. (As for Steyer, he’s an afterthought in every state except South Carolina.) Yes, he is polling higher nationally than political newcomers like Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg, to say nothing of his edge over once-heralded candidates like Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. But he is currently projected to spend more on advertising than Hillary Clinton spent in the entire 2016 Democratic primary in exchange for a paltry number of delegates.

Here’s one explanation: A national election or primary produces so much media across TV, audio, digital, and print platforms that $300 million worth of ads captures just a microscopic sliver of the totality of attention paid by likely voters. Spending half a billion dollars on advertising in a national election to change millions of minds is perhaps no more realistic than ladling soup into an ocean to change its salinity.

5. It’s a dangerous opening for a new age of American oligarchy.

Whether Bloomberg flames out in two weeks or becomes the 46th president of the United States, his opulent experiment in self-funding could open a Pandora’s box of billionaire projects.

“Mounting a historically well-funded presidential campaign is a minor indulgence [for a billionaire] akin to an upper middle-class family spending a weekend at a ski resort,” Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine. If other tycoons learn from his example, Levitz says, the next few decades could see a bonanza of $100 million campaigns, and not all of them will have as beneficent a goal as preventing an authoritarian president from winning a second term.

Bloomberg supporters might counter that plutocrats have been pulling strings in Washington for years, especially in the post–Citizens United world. (The families Koch, Mercer, and Soros didn’t need Bloomberg’s inspiration to spend tens of millions of their own dollars to support Republican or Democratic causes in the past few election cycles.) And, they might add, there is something almost quaintly straightforward about a self-funding billionaire with a public record of legislation who owes no favors to occult special interests. You can love or hate the idea of a billionaire philosopher-king nominee, but it’s the opposite of a Manchurian candidate.