Presidential primary season is supposed to represent our democracy at its most pure: Iowans caucusing with their neighbors in high school gyms, skeptical New Hampshire residents posing tough questions to politicians seeking to earn their votes.
Some lucky candidate emerges from that gauntlet, with the inside track to their party’s nomination. The nomination isn’t for sale — it has to be earned, one voter, one raucous rally at a time.
But what if this is the year none of that turns out to be true?
Mega-billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is betting big that the old rules are no longer set in stone. And by “betting big,” I mean that he’s spending tens of millions of dollars a week on the notion that winning in Iowa and New Hampshire — states he didn’t compete in — might not be worth a pitcher of warm spit, as the old saying goes.
Two months ago, I would have said that’s probably crazy. But it doesn’t feel crazy anymore.
To say Bloomberg is surging might be a stretch. But he’s had a very strong two weeks — without even appearing on a ballot.
First, let’s look at the race. Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders finished in a virtual tie in Iowa. Good for them, but the muddled non-results may have left the co-victors with a smaller boost than they might have otherwise claimed. As I write, results from New Hampshire are pending, but early signs pointed to a strong showing for Sanders and Buttigieg.That spells bad news for Senator Elizabeth Warren, and, especially, Joe Biden.
Biden didn’t even wait for the results in New Hampshire before heading to South Carolina, his supposed “firewall.” But even a win in South Carolina might not be enough to resuscitate a listless campaign whose claims of “electablity” are less convincing by the day.
I feel some sympathy for Warren, whose ideas-driven campaign seems to have peaked around Halloween. Sure, she will live to fight on to South Carolina and Super Tuesday. But at some point she needs wins, not just respectable finishes. And if not in neighboring New Hampshire, where?
So where does Bloomberg fit into all this? If Biden is collapsing — and it sure looks like he is — that leaves Bloomberg and Senator Amy Klobuchar to fight over the liberal voters who aren’t convinced that Sanders or Warren can beat President Trump.
To be sure, Bloomberg will be a hard sell for many Democrats. He’s a former Republican, and an elitist plutocrat. His record as mayor is already coming under close scrutiny — especially his record of officially sanctioned police harassment of Black and brown young men that was more politely known as “stop and frisk.”
But, then again, there are a lot of voters who think this election comes down to one thing — beating Donald Trump.
And it isn’t unthinkable that a moderately liberal Democrat who’s been a strong advocate of gun control and addressing climate change — with unlimited resources to throw into the race — is the last person Trump wants to run against.
Bloomberg certainly seems to hold Trump in contempt. When asked if the country really wants two billionaires from New York running against each other for president, he’s been known to quip, “Who’s the other one?” (That would be billionaire shade.)
As the slate of primaries including Super Tuesday approaches without a prohibitive front-runner, Bloomberg is poised to be perhaps the only candidate with the resources to compete in 8 to 12 states at a time. That’s a good place to be.
Yes, financing one’s own campaign should be fatal — it goes against the whole egalitarian premise of a political party. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past four years, it’s that no one can say with certainty what voters find disqualifying.
What do Democrats want in an opponent to Trump? We may be just beginning to find out.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.