Wednesday, Feb. 19, may end up being remembered as a turning point in this year’s Democratic presidential race.
That night, the five remaining major contenders for the party’s nomination will meet in Las Vegas for a debate, and most bookies will give you good odds they’ll be joined for the first time by former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
The rules for this debate qualify a candidate who wins 10% or more support in four national polls. Bloomberg has hit that mark in three polls so far in recent days, and a fourth seems likely over the weekend as pollsters release post-New Hampshire surveys.
The latest news, analysis and insights from our bureau chiefs in Sacramento and D.C.
Until now, Bloomberg, a billionaire many times over, has introduced himself to voters outside of New York mostly through a barrage of television ads paid for with a fraction of his immense fortune. A debate would, for the first time, allow voters to compare him directly with his rivals. A lot will ride on that first impression.
The man who wasn’t there
Bloomberg was everywhere and nowhere in New Hampshire in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary. Voters talked about him, especially the many who were having trouble making up their minds; Sen. Bernie Sanders, the New Hampshire winner, growled about billionaires trying to buy the election; and pundits speculated about the impact he might have on the race.
He wasn’t on the ballot, of course, because of his decision to enter the race late and skip the opening contests.
That unorthodox gamble increasingly appears to have paid off. It allowed Bloomberg to avoid the intense vetting, up-close retail campaigning and repeated debating that the other candidates have gone through — none of which he’s known to be good at — while still figuring heavily in the conversation.
His strategy would have failed if former Vice President Joe Biden had won the first couple of contests, establishing himself as a presumptive nominee, or if another candidate had decisively beaten the field. But neither happened.
Instead, Biden’s campaign has nearly collapsed after he finished fourth and fifth in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sanders’ victory Tuesday established him as the clear leader of the party’s left wing, eclipsing Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but his 26% in New Hampshire, beating Pete Buttigieg by just two points, hardly qualified as decisive.
And Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the surprise third-place finisher in New Hampshire, both get to advance to the next round, preventing any one candidate from consolidating the party’s center-left faction.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar both have several qualities going for them — youth, to begin with, compared with Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg, all of whom are in their late 70s.
Both, however, have a shortage of money and national profile. That will hamper them in just over two weeks when the competition suddenly shifts from small stages to a huge, national one, with 14 states from Maine to California voting on March 3 in primaries that will allocate more than a third of the delegates to the nominating convention.
That has led many Democrats to focus — with either anticipation or dread, depending on their politics — on Bloomberg.
To voters and elected officials in the center-left, including many members of the House, Bloomberg appears as a champion who could fend off Sanders and successfully take on President Trump in the fall. On the party’s left, many decry that prospect as folly and worse — the surrender of the working man’s party to a plutocrat, a triumph of upper-middle-class concerns over bread-and-butter economic issues and a turn away from demands for racial justice.
Amid all that, we still have very little evidence of how Bloomberg might fare as an actual candidate.
Since his entry into the race in late November, he has moved up steadily in polls. In national polling averages, he has pretty much caught up with Biden, whose standing continues to drop. A poll released Friday morning of likely Florida voters showed Bloomberg and Biden neck and neck, with Biden dropping and Bloomberg rising compared with their standing late last month. Other recent surveys have shown him moving into the top three in North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas.
But Bloomberg has only rarely had to answer questions, has avoided direct comparisons with other candidates and has just begun to undergo the scrutiny that a presidential candidate inevitably has to go through. His presumed ability to take on Trump stems from his three terms as mayor of New York, his success in business and the immense resources that has provided him — a fortune estimated at somewhere around $60 billion.
In recent years, he has contributed heavily to Democratic candidates and causes, especially efforts to combat gun violence and climate change. He can, legitimately, claim to have significantly helped Democrats win control of the House in 2018. None of that says much, however, about his ability to campaign.
So many states have moved their primaries earlier this year that by mid-March, more than 60% of the delegates to the nominating convention will have been allocated. Before that happens, Democratic voters need to find out if Bloomberg is a rocket or a squib. Next week’s debate could offer the first chance to find out.
Voters of color get their say
As everyone who follows politics has heard many times by now, the first two contests of the nominating season take place in states — Iowa and New Hampshire — that are very white. Starting Feb. 22, with the caucuses in Nevada, the race moves through states where black, Latino and Asian voters have a much bigger say.
As Janet Hook wrote, Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all have in common a history of limited success with minority voters. Sanders lost heavily to Hillary Clinton among black voters in 2016. He’s done considerably more outreach this time around and has polled well among Latino voters, but his appeal among black voters remains untested.
Buttigieg has struggled since he announced his candidacy to win over voters of color; his record as mayor South Bend, Ind., has hurt him considerably. And Klobuchar, like Sanders, represents one of the nation’s whitest states, Minnesota.
Lack of support among nonwhite voters is just one of the reasons why Klobuchar’s Cinderella campaign story could end quickly in the next couple of weeks, as Seema Mehta and Hook wrote. She faces a major challenge in rapidly scaling up to compete in Nevada and South Carolina, not to mention the even bigger hill of the March 3 contests.
Nevada has an electorate that represents key parts of the Democratic coalition, as Matt Pearce wrote. The vast majority of the state is classic western terrain — arid, rural rangeland, mountains and deserts. But the Democratic electorate is almost entirely urban, much of it union workers and heavily Latino.
With the exception of Tom Steyer, the candidates haven’t been to Nevada a lot, and with the state’s largest union, the Culinary Workers, announcing Thursday that it would not endorse any candidate, the state’s caucuses seem very much up for grabs.
Biden has pinned his remaining hopes on South Carolina, which holds its primary on Feb. 29, and the support he’s gotten from black voters. Blacks typically make up 60% or more of the Democratic voters in the state’s primaries.
The former vice president’s backing among black voters lasted long enough to block two promising black candidates, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, but as Jenny Jarvie wrote from South Carolina, there are signs of erosion now.
Many black voters admire Biden for his willingness to play second fiddle to President Obama. But many supported him in large part because they thought he represented the best chance to rid the country of Trump. As Biden’s aura of electability dims, holding onto that support will grow harder.
As for Bloomberg, tensions with minority communities frequently punctuated his tenure as mayor, especially because of his advocacy of the aggressive police tactics lumped together under the heading of “stop and frisk.”
As Michael Finnegan and Arit John wrote, Bloomberg is only now being confronted with his past statements defending stop and frisk. His ability to either defend or explain away his record could play a major role in whether he can attract and hold the support of black voters.
Trump flexes his muscles
On the eve of the New Hampshire voting, Trump barged into Manchester, the state’s largest city, for a rally. The trip, as Eli Stokols wrote, represented the aggressive, in-your-face style as Trump’s campaign revs up its show.
Unlike his 2016 campaign, which often seemed planned on the fly, Trump’s reelection features a huge staff, a budget financed by more than $200 million in donations so far and a host of eager surrogates. He has intimidated many Democrats with an extensive field operation and advertising network.
None of that negates the president’s deep unpopularity with a huge swath of the electorate. But Trump’s strategy has not been to win over the majority, but, rather, to keep his minority revved up, maximize its turnout and hope to eke out another narrow victory. All of that is clearly possible.
At the same time, with impeachment behind him, Trump has moved aggressively to purge the executive branch of people he deems disloyal.
As Noah Bierman wrote, the White House is cutting dozens of national security experts, paring down the National Security Council staff, of which Trump has long been suspicious.
He has also moved to defend his loyalists who face prison terms for lying to investigators, attempting to block probes and assorted other misdeeds.
The most prominent example so far was his loudly stated opposition to prosecutors’ advocacy of a seven- to nine-year sentence for his longtime political advisor, Roger Stone. When Atty. Gen. William Barr overruled the career prosecutors, all four of them quit the case. The resignations have roiled the Justice Department, Del Wilber wrote.
As many predicted, Trump appears emboldened by his acquittal in the Senate and his belief that Republicans will back him no matter what.
So far, that’s proven true, although enough Republicans did desert him this week for the Senate to pass a War Powers Act resolution designed to restrain military actions against Iran without congressional approval.
As Sarah Wire wrote, however, the vote was far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto, which is all but certain if the House, as expected, follows the Senate’s lead and passes the measure.
Equal Rights Amendment back in the news, but ...
Democrats won back control of the Virginia Legislature in the state’s election in November, and one of their first moves was to fulfill a campaign promise to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Virginia became the 38th state to ratify — hitting the three-quarters of the states needed to add an amendment to the Constitution. Unfortunately for backers of the amendment, Congress long ago put a 1982 time limit on ratification. On Thursday, the House voted to lift the deadline, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has no plans to allow the Senate to join that move.
As David Savage wrote, the legal issues surrounding the amendment have made for some unlikely alliances. Among those who question the validity of a delayed ratification: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.