NORFOLK, Virginia — While the rest of the Democratic field showed up in New Hampshire still unclear about who, exactly, won the Iowa caucuses, Mike Bloomberg was elsewhere.
He was in Philadelphia; he was in Providence, Rhode Island; he was in Norfolk, Virginia. This weekend, he’s going to Alabama and Oklahoma.
In light of the morass other Democrats have found themselves in after the app-induced Iowa debacle, in which days passed before it became clear that Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg essentially tied, the primary race is fluid. Iowa didn’t winnow the field as it usually does, and the negative attacks between candidates have started to pick up. But the former mayor of New York City, who only entered the race in November, is simply staying out of the fray — and there are signs his campaign is appealing to voters who are looking for an alternative to a struggling Joe Biden.
“I didn’t make a decision to stay out. I came in too late to get in, so I can’t take credit for that,” Bloomberg told me on Wednesday when I asked him whether the Iowa mess made him feel vindicated about his decision to largely skip the four early states. “There’s plenty of chances. There’s lots of elections coming up in every other state. There’s still 46 states to hear from, and that’s where I’m gonna compete.”
“It’s hard to believe that anybody could go into something with a piece of software that’s never been tested and written by a bunch of amateurs on the back of an envelope, I guess, because it certainly didn’t work,” Bloomberg said of the Iowa caucuses. “It’s just irresponsible.”
“After more than a year of this primary, the field is as unsettled as ever,” Bloomberg spokesperson Galia Slayen said in a statement this week. “No one has made the sale or even come close to it.”
The Bloomberg way is unusual in modern presidential politics, which emphasizes vague concepts like “momentum” over the more technical nuts and bolts of winning the nomination. And yes, there’s no other campaign quite like Bloomberg’s. First, there’s its sheer size; the campaign announced this week it plans to soon swell to 2,000 staffers. Then, there’s its unusual strategy: Instead of flooding states that vote early in the primary calendar in the hope of capturing momentum, Bloomberg is targeting states that vote later, many of which offer many more delegates up for grabs than Iowa or New Hampshire do. And he’s running as though in some ways he’s already the nominee, hardly mentioning his primary opponents and casting himself as the “un-Trump.”
That’s a direct quote, which he said during his Wednesday speech in Providence, where he was joined by the state’s governor, Gina Raimondo, a moderate Democrat. Raimondo endorsed Bloomberg, the first governor to do so. Bloomberg has begun picking up high-profile endorsements, including from former Navy secretary Richard Spencer, whom President Trump fired in November over the Eddie Gallagher case.
Being a billionaire, Bloomberg is able to challenge Trump on a level that no other candidate can apart from Tom Steyer, who has chosen a much different tack. Instead of pretending to not be a super-rich guy, Bloomberg embraces it and argues that he’s more real of a billionaire than Trump is. He is not a Trump-style braggart, but he’s not opposed to a little of that either. During his Rhode Island speech, he praised Raimondo, suggesting she should run for another term despite the fact that she’ll finish her second term in 2023. “I’m told they have term limits here,” Bloomberg said. “I had term limits too.” (Bloomberg was mayor for three terms, running twice as a Republican and once as an independent. The New York City Council voted to change New York’s rules so that a mayor could serve for three terms instead of two in 2008, enabling Bloomberg to win a third term).
Bloomberg’s speech in Providence was interrupted by protesters yelling about Jeffrey Epstein; as they were escorted out, Bloomberg joked, “a cynic might say I hired them to make me look good.” Bloomberg was then interrupted by a protester shouting about stop-and-frisk and NYPD surveillance of Muslim communities, policies from his mayoral administration that enraged progressives. “It’s nice that people have first amendment rights,” Bloomberg said.
“People ask me, ‘Do you really want a general election between two New York billionaires?’” Bloomberg told an audience in Philadelphia the day after the Iowa caucuses. “To which I say, ‘Who’s the other one?’”
“I have no patience for toadies and sycophants,” Bloomberg said in his Friday speech in Norfolk. “My ego doesn’t need the stroking. I hate to break this to you, but I’m not insecure about who I am — and I’m comfortable with people disagreeing with me and telling me so.”
Bloomberg’s needling, and the scale of his campaign, has caught Trump’s attention; the president has repeatedly tweeted about him and assigned him a mean nickname, “Mini Mike.”
Is all this bravado working? Depends on who you ask.
Multiple voters I spoke with at Bloomberg events this past week said they had initially thought they would support Joe Biden, but were now turned off by Biden’s struggling campaign. Into this breach steps Bloomberg, who presents a moderate alternative who to some voters feels more seasoned than Buttigieg.
Amanda Nawrot, 38, of Chesapeake, Virginia, said she would “definitely” consider Bloomberg now that Biden’s campaign is stumbling. “I like all the candidates, but I worry that Buttigieg doesn’t have enough experience against Trump,” she said.
“I already knew about him and so I came here impressed,” said Eric S., 67, a software developer from Providence, who declined to give his last name. “But he really confirmed everything that I was thinking, which is that he’s levelheaded and experienced and tough enough to stand up and not lose his head and make good decisions.”
“The Iowa thing made me decide to come down here and see what’s going on,” Eric said. “I was for Biden but I don’t think he’s able to prevail, and so I have to think about that.”
John Burns, 75, who was also at Bloomberg’s event in Providence, said he had been leaning Biden previously. But he’s detected “no enthusiasm” for Biden’s campaign and has switched his support to Bloomberg, believing that Bloomberg can beat Trump in the key swing state of Florida.
There’s something happening, but it’s not clear yet what it is. Bloomberg has been rising in national polling but is still well behind the top tier. Apart from Raimondo and Spencer, Bloomberg won the endorsement this week of Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens, another moderate Democrat whose endorsement might have gone to Biden. Bloomberg’s money means he’s able to flood the airwaves with advertisements all over the country, increasing his visibility in places where other candidates haven’t been able to start competing. And a DNC rules change means that Bloomberg will likely be able to participate in the next debate — since he’s self-funding his campaign, he had thus far been unable to qualify for debates because of DNC rules about how many individual donors a candidate must have.
Bloomberg has said that his only goal is to defeat Trump, and that even if he is not the nominee, he’ll use his massive fortune to support whoever is. And this in itself is a message that appeals to many Democratic voters, who are uninterested in the internecine arguments dividing the party and simply want to beat Trump no matter what.
“Anybody, literally anybody but Trump,” said Richard Hahn, 60, who came out to see Bloomberg in Norfolk. Hahn said Bloomberg was “the only sensible candidate running right now,” and is impressed by his being a “self-made billionaire” and that he’s paying his staff well and has committed to paying them through the election regardless of the outcome.
“The truth is I’ll vote for any Democrat,” said Eric S, from Providence. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to be with whoever runs against Trump.”
“I listened to [Bloomberg] about two weeks ago, three weeks ago. And then I started pulling up research on him,” said Bobby Buxton, 65, a retired financial adviser who attended Bloomberg’s event in Norfolk. “And I started looking into his background. And I started listening to other people talk to him. And then, you know, when the noise gets loud enough that you can hear it...The noise was quiet in the beginning, but the noise is getting louder.”
The noise is getting loud enough that Bloomberg’s opponents are starting to have to respond to it. In Friday night’s debate in New Hampshire, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked the candidates about Spencer’s endorsement of Bloomberg, saying, “Why do you think you're better positioned than Bloomberg to beat Trump?”
“I don't think anyone ought to be able to buy their way into a nomination or to be president of the United States,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said. “I don't think any billionaire ought to be able to do it, and I don't think people who suck up to billionaires in order to fund their campaigns ought to do it.”
“People don't look at the guy in the White House and say, can we get someone richer?” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “I don't think they think that. They want to have someone that they can understand.”
“There are millions of people who can desire to run for office, but I guess if you're worth $60 billion and you can spend several hundred million dollars on commercials, you have a slight advantage,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “That is nonsense.”