Michael R. Bloomberg can’t possibly win the Democratic nomination for president, right? That’s the conventional wisdom. And it makes sense.
But political wisdom has become pretty shaky in recent years.
For starters, Bloomberg is immediately tagged with being a mega-billionaire. And Democratic voters aren’t fond of billionaires.
In fact, two top-tier liberal candidates for the nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have built up their fan bases railing against billionaires. That populism is cheered by frustrated voters rightfully concerned about income inequality.
Moreover, Bloomberg is a self-funding campaigner. You know what Democratic voters mostly do with wealthy self-funders: Dump them.
There’s a long history of that, particularly in California. Republican Meg Whitman spent $144 million of her own money and lost the governor’s race to Jerry Brown in 2010. Decades ago, art collector-industrialist Norton Simon and steamship heir William Matson Roth tried to “buy” Senate and gubernatorial offices and failed miserably.
And now there is former hedge fund chief Tom Steyer, a San Francisco billionaire, who has bombed trying to run for president. But at least he has qualified for the televised debates.
Bloomberg won’t make it onstage with the other Democratic candidates if he sticks with his vow not to accept campaign donations from individuals. And good for him.
He can’t be bought, Bloomberg says. Opponents cry he’s trying to buy the election on his own. OK, but at least he’s spending his riches — $37 million on TV ads so far — on a good cause: democracy, not islands and yachts.
There’s a huge difference between Bloomberg and the likes of previously rejected billionaires Whitman, Steve Forbes and Ross Perot. Bloomberg has a solid record of public service, having been elected three times as New York’s mayor. He didn’t try to start at the top, as a governor or president.
And holding down the mayor’s job in New York is a bit more challenging than being mayor, say, of South Bend, Ind., which is the main feature on top-tier candidate Pete Buttigieg’s resume.
One regrettable part of Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure tarnished his image among African Americans and Latinos. That was his support for stop-and-frisk, which resulted in a disproportionate number of black and Latino people being hassled by cops for no good reason.
Just before formally entering the race, Bloomberg went to a black church and repented, asking to be forgiven. But it will take lots more repair work to be accepted by these vital Democratic constituencies. Now they’re siding mainly with former Vice President Joe Biden, polls show.
Bloomberg, who is Jewish, is from New York. New York City, like California, isn’t all that popular beyond its borders. And a Jewish person has never been elected president.
But there also wasn’t an African American president before Barack Obama. A black candidate couldn’t be elected until one was.
For that matter, until a few weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that a young gay man couldn’t be elected president either. But now, well, maybe. Buttigieg is growing on voters.
And it wasn’t long ago when an ill-mannered New York billionaire developer with a string of bankruptcies and no experience in public office was also thought to be unelectable. His chief claim to fame was being a TV reality showman. A lot of wise politicos wound up looking foolish.
Bloomberg is civil and respectful and hardly a show horse — the opposite of President Trump.
He is also a champion of issues favored by most Democrats: gun control, climate change and education. He’s a strong leader on those fronts. In addition, he banned smoking in New York City bars and restaurants, and tried to get rid of big sodas — issues that warm the hearts of liberal Democrats.
But there’s a little problem with his political past: He was a Republican as mayor, strongly supported by the Democrats’ current bogeyman, former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. Worse, he donated heavily to Republican candidates, including Warren’s Senate opponent in 2014.
Bloomberg, however, spent around $100 million to help elect Democrats to Congress last year.
So look on the bright side: Maybe this past multiparty contributor has shown he can work both sides of the aisle, something sorely needed today in Washington.
But he’s too old, many think. He is up there: 77. It’s all relative. He’s younger than Sanders, 78, and a bit older than Biden, who turned 77 this month. Trump is 73 and Warren is 70.
He’s jumping into the race awfully late, skipping the first four contests and beginning his sprint on so-called Super Tuesday, March 3, with the California primary and more than a dozen other contests.
If there’s an acceptable clear front-runner with momentum by Super Tuesday, Bloomberg can pack up and go home. If not, perhaps his TV money will propel him into play.
I called some veteran political strategists who aren’t involved in the race.
“Is it a difficult road? Yes. Completely impossible? No,” says Bob Shrum, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It depends on what happens in the early primaries. If Biden could manage to win in either Iowa or New Hampshire, there might not be much of an opening.”
“It’s not clear who he takes his votes from,” says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. “He did win three elections in New York, but his base constituency was Republicans.”
“I have a theory that he thinks he can be a power broker at the convention,” says Democratic consultant Garry South. “He could walk into the convention with 200 to 300 delegates.”
“It’s pretty long odds,” says former Democratic consultant Darry Sragow. “But one thing we know in politics today is never say never. Still, I just don’t see a base for him in California.”
Me, I can’t see Bloomberg as the Democratic nominee. But I couldn’t envision Trump as president either.