It was all going according to plan.
From the outset, the premise of Michael Bloomberg’s strategy for winning the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination was buyer’s remorse. The script Team Bloomberg sketched out for Democratic primary electorate buyer’s remorse went something like this:
Bernie wins Iowa by a little, New Hampshire by more, Nevada by a wide margin and does much “better than expected” in South Carolina. As a result, money for all but the two self-funded candidates (Bloomberg and Steyer) dries up. At which point the candidates with no money — Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren — have to decide whether to take on debt that they will spend the next four years paying down or starve their campaigns when expenditures are most required (Super Tuesday’s most important media markets are wildly expensive). Either way, out of money meant out of the money and shortly thereafter out of the race.
Into the breach would step Michael Bloomberg, around whom Democratic primary voters would coalesce to give the party its best chance of defeating President Trump in November. Roughly two-thirds of Democratic primary voters think that’s the most important mission of the Democratic nominating process: bring us someone who can beat Trump.
Lo and behold, what Team Bloomberg sketched out more or less came to pass. Bernie did his job, although a bit less convincingly than expected. He was tied by Mayor Pete in Iowa (let’s not debate State Delegate Equivalents versus “first wave” preference, let’s just call it a tie). He squeaked by in New Hampshire with a tepid 26% of the vote. But he won Nevada with gusto and in so doing established himself as the legitimate front-runner.
The others did their jobs as well. After a promising start in Iowa and New Hampshire, Amy Klobuchar finished fifth in Nevada, in single digits and with diminished and diminishing prospects. Elizabeth Warren was on track for another gloomy fourth place finish. She has advertised herself as the candidate who can bridge the divide between the party’s two main factions. She fared poorly among both in Nevada. Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg lost to Joe Biden, which will happen again in South Carolina, which will put Buttigieg on a downward trajectory heading into Super Tuesday, when roughly one-third of the delegates to the Democratic Nation Convention will be chosen.
To top it all off, the Biden resurgence, which the former vice president said would start with a win or a place (but no show) in Nevada, barely crossed the minimum threshold he set for himself. He placed (not all of the precinct caucuses have reported, but it seems all-but-certain that Biden will finish second in Nevada). That’s about all you can say about Biden in Nevada: He placed. If you get down in the weeds a bit, you see that Biden didn’t even win caucuses in precincts where the support of the state’s most powerful union, the Culinary Workers Union, usually insures victory. Biden had the union’s support in those precincts and lost anyway.
As strategy sketches go, Team Bloomberg’s sketch was as close to perfect as they come. There was only one, small, hard-to-overlook-no-matter-how-hard-you-tried glitch: Bloomberg’s maiden voyage into the candidate debates.
It was a disaster. As introductions to the national stage go, its only rival is Bill Clinton’s keynote address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, a speech so awful that the delegates applauded when he said the words “in conclusion.” Bloomberg’s debate performance was far worse than Clinton’s bloviating. It undermined many of the advertised “features” of his candidacy. Well-prepared? Nope. Ready for prime time? Nope. Smart? Not particularly. Effective: Not. Energetic? Confident, Strong? Sharp? Nope, nope, nope and nope.
The thing that made it worse was that it was so unnecessary. A lot of people (myself very much included) thought that the Bloomberg campaign would take a page from the 1968 Nixon campaign and repackage their candidate with “Man in the Arena” televised town halls.
The repackaging of Richard Nixon was the subject of Joe McGinniss’s book, The Selling of the President, which featured (among other things) the emergence of Roger Ailes, who came up with the idea of the “Man in the Arena” town halls and produced them for the Nixon campaign. The idea was simple: put the candidate in the middle of a crowd of citizens who ask questions (politely) about issues the candidate needed to emphasize or deal with or make go away. And in so doing, cast the candidate as a somewhat heroic figure; Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.” Queue the Roosevelt speech excerpt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
It would of course be impossible to cast Michael Bloomberg as Teddy Roosevelt. He wasn’t someone given to “great enthusiasms” or “great devotions.” He was a data guy. But he was a “man in the arena” and there were things about his past that needed to be dealt with and explained away. Why not do that in a controlled environment? Why not preempt sticky questions about your business and political careers? Why enter a debate when you are wildly out of practice? Why put the franchise at risk unnecessarily?
The debate performance was awful. What made it bracing was that it woke up Democratic Party professionals to a chilly fact: The Bloomberg campaign braintrust lacked a basic understanding of what is required to run a successful presidential campaign. What is not required or even welcome is wishful thinking.
If someone writes a book about the 2020 election and Bloomberg goes on from here to lose the nomination, the chapter on how he lost will be two sentences: He bombed in his first debate. His team failed him completely.
The question now is: Can he recover on Super Tuesday (March 3rd)?
In all likelihood, Bloomberg will be judged on how well he performs in three Super Tuesday states: Virginia, Texas and California. Things were coming together nicely for him in all three prior to the debate. You could see him winning Virginia and Texas (and maybe getting Beto on board in Texas as well). And with Biden in full flounder, you could see Bloomberg doing surprisingly well in California, where the moderate-left and the liberal-left wings are more or less evenly divided.
Alas, Bloomberg’s debate face-plant threw a lifeline to Biden. It allowed Democratic primary voters to reconsider Biden’s candidacy. Maybe he wasn’t so bad after all. He certainly was better than Bloomberg in the debate! Why not give him a second chance? He’ll win South Carolina. Maybe that will get him back on track.
The problem with the lifeline, from Bloomberg’s point of view, was and is that it extends the dispersion of the not-Sanders vote, which makes it more likely that Sanders will win more states on Super Tuesday (and beyond) and less likely that he can be denied the nomination.