Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is moving toward a White House run, even as his aides say his attempt to get on the Alabama primary ballot doesn’t guarantee he’ll be a candidate.
That said, the news has shaken up the race ever since his team announced the move Thursday night. Bloomberg is driving the cable news discussion, and nearly all of the candidates in the race are reacting.
The uniqueness of a Bloomberg candidacy for president requires a whole different way of thinking about how he, the Democratic National Committee, his opponents, and voters should look at the race.
The biggest three questions of the moment are these:
Will Bloomberg skip Iowa or all of the early presidential primary states?
One thing Bloomberg, reportedly worth $52 billion, doesn’t have to worry about with this campaign is raising money quickly. But what he does need to worry about is quickly building a campaign infrastructure in the early states that either matches or exceeds what those already in the race have built over the last 11 months or longer. That is unless he decides to skip the early states, an unprecedented move in modern American politics.
The biggest nut to crack is Iowa, which will hold its caucuses 87 days from Friday. More pressing than the time frame is how a candidate must compete there.
Iowa is a field organizer’s paradise. That’s because, in theory, each candidate faces the task finding Iowa voters in each of the 1,700 precincts. They have to make sure to have enough supporters who show up for the caucus in each precinct to at least meet the 15 percent threshold — otherwise their campaign won’t even be counted.
The major campaigns already have hundreds of staffers aimed at the task of how caucus night will go. Bloomberg starts at zero and campaign ads cannot buy the tactical nuts and bolts required of this type of organizing.
Structurally, Bloomberg might just decide to skip all four early states. There are the Iowa organizing issues and the fact that he might have problems winning in Nevada with the heavy influence of one union there — the culinary union that represents all workers at casinos. Bloomberg met with the union in the spring when he last explored a run, but his messaging might not be a good fit.
Then there’s South Carolina. Given that Bloomberg has never had a lot of support among African-Americans, including in his hometown, it could be tough to win there given that African-Americans make up 60 percent of the Democratic primary vote.
One place that Bloomberg could play is New Hampshire. He is a good ideological fit for the state, particularly where independents make up the biggest block of voters and are allowed to vote in the Democratic primary. And what field organizing is to Iowa, message and media campaigns are to New Hampshire. Playing in New Hampshire does make some sense, but it is a place where neighboring Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren already look like they are going to do quite well.
How worried are the early states that Bloomberg will just skip them? On Friday morning the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic Party chairs took the rare step of issuing a statement directly to Bloomberg.
“We are certain that Granite Staters, Iowans, and other early state voters are eager to ask Michael Bloomberg about his plans to move our states and our country forward,” the statement read.
What if he isn’t a big deal?
There is an underlying premise of news coverage and the discussion on Democratic campaigns: Bloomberg is immediately a big dog in the race. But what if he isn’t? While he does have some name recognition, there is no evidence that the next round of polls will show him anywhere new the top tier.
When polls were taken before he got in the race, he was in the single digits. And while he will be given some grace period to ramp up, if he is not in the top tier quickly, it is unclear what his path to the nomination will be, and how he could overcome momentum of the top tier with just television and digital ads.
The moment Bloomberg is seen by the press and voters as just another candidate — instead of a savior for the party — the underlying premise of his campaign is over.
Will he be in the debates?
Here is the thing about a self-funding candidate: They won’t meet the donor threshold needed to qualify for the DNC televised debates.
For the December debate, candidates need to show they have 200,000 individual donors and have 4 percent in at least four different polls. Bloomberg could get to the poll threshold with the help of ads, but as for the donor requirement, he may decide not to invest on Facebook or elsewhere chasing $1 donations just to make a debate. Indeed, he might decide to not engage with other candidates in those forums.
And if Bloomberg becomes a big deal despite this, the Democratic National Committee will have to decide if it will adjust its rules in order to allow him in future debates. After all, rival candidates might demand it.