clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The mutually beneficial war between Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, explained

Two candidates who really want to portray the election as a two-way race.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally at University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has spent hundreds of millions on television ads, but he understands the value of free media as much as anyone else and has made an aggressive push in recent days to define the Democratic presidential nominating contest as a race between himself and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders’s campaign has responded in kind, working aggressively online to portray Sanders as the anti-Bloomberg and Bloomberg himself as a kind of mini-Trump.

Sanders has called out Bloomberg on the campaign trail, but overall the spat has played out largely on Twitter, a platform on which few undecided voters get their news but on which very many journalists find leads for stories.

Consequently, in a crowded field, the tit for tat helps both campaigns to suck the oxygen away from other candidates — including former Vice President Joe Biden, whose poll numbers still seem pretty good but whose fundraising is flagging; the well-financed former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is still lesser-known nationally; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose campaign is frustrated about being written off even as she’s won a number of delegates; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s obscure but widely seen by insiders as someone who’d be well-liked if more people heard of her.

The fight itself is revealing a number of themes that are in the mix as Democrats weigh their options. But it’s also heavily layered with irony. Bloomberg’s candidacy is fueled by anti-Sanders panic, but objectively, his entry into the race and rise in the polls has only served to make a Sanders nomination more likely. And Sanders’s camp is so eager to attack Bloomberg in part because the former New York mayor’s tenuous historical connections to the institutional Democratic Party make him an ideal foil for Sanders, who is himself aloof from the institution.

It’s a fight that suits both men and their campaigns, in other words, and is thus likely to continue.

Two campaigns are arguing on Twitter

It all started, more or less, when Sanders decided to directly take on the claim that Bloomberg’s extremely deep pockets meant he could run a uniquely strong campaign against Trump in November. If I were trying to undermine the electability case for Bloomberg, I’d probably have cited things like his efforts to ban large sodas, but Sanders instead argued that his campaign “will not create the kind of excitement and energy” that he believes he himself can unleash.

Bloomberg’s team shot back with a web video citing “Bernie Bro” tweets in which various Sanders supporters articulate the idea that they are more interested in intra-factional warfare than in beating Trump in November.

Bloomberg’s message is an idea that has probably not penetrated mass consciousness but that looms extremely large in the minds of people who spend a lot of time online.

Most rank and file Democrats have broadly positive feelings toward everyone in the field and strongly negative feelings about Trump. According to Morning Consult, for example, 74 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of Bernie Sanders while 66 percent have a favorable view of Joe Biden. Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren are at 61, and Pete Buttigieg is at 60.

But many Sanders supporters, taking the cue from thought-leaders at pro-Sanders media outlets like Jacobin, Current Affairs, and the Chapo Trap House podcast see things differently — they are very excited about the prospect of a Sanders presidency, very down on other Democrats running (and the Democratic Party writ large), and have little interest in clapping and cheering for the idea that the important thing is to win in November no matter who the nominee is. Many people who spend enough time online to be heavily exposed to this discourse also find it to be incredibly alienating and wrongheaded — and believe to an extent that negativity toward Hillary Clinton from Sanders-aligned media did serious damage to her presidential campaign in 2016.

This critique is on one level somewhat paradoxical.

On paper, if you believe the differences between Sanders and the rest of the field are overblown but that Sanders’s fans are uniquely invested in exaggerating the stakes, that is a reason to see nominating Sanders as the best path to party unity.

But most voters act emotionally rather than strategically, and if they are mad at the Sandersverse for sabotaging Democrats, that will make them disinclined to vote for Sanders. So the Bloomberg campaign is playing up the idea that Sanders is running a kind of anti-party movement of assholes, both to hit Sanders and to try to shield their own candidate from criticism.

Sanders’s national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, shot back with a tweet referencing both the NYPD’s Bloomberg-era stop-and-frisk policies and also the idea that Sanders has a multiracial political coalition behind him.

Gray herself is a perfect flashpoint for these arguments because she’s said she voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in 2016. In many Democrats’ view, Stein voters are bad people, so a campaign that would hire a Stein-voting person in a prominent role is a movement of bad people that should be resisted.

A more optimistic take would be that to win in 2020, Democrats need the votes of people who did not vote for them in 2016 so having people like that help craft the candidate’s message is smart. Bloomberg himself, meanwhile, prominently endorsed George W. Bush in 2004 so neither camp here is exactly a paragon of party loyalty.

The final round of tit for tat involved the Bloomberg campaign issuing a statement comparing Sanders’s tactics to Trump, followed by the Sanders campaign tweeting a photo of Bloomberg golfing with Trump.

In other words, everyone is having a rollicking good time.

Bloomberg’s candidacy has been good for Sanders

Back on January 18, Sanders was about 7 points down in FiveThirty Eight’s national aggregate polling average. By February 18, he had roughly a 7-point lead.

That improvement in his relative position (and concurrently elevated odds of becoming the Democratic Party nominee) has involved just a 4 percentage point increase in the share of Democrats who say they are backing Sanders. The other 10 points worth of swing come purely from Joe Biden’s fall in the polls, a fall that has come largely thanks to Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg.

This multi-way fragmentation of the moderate vote is helpful to Sanders not just in the mathematical sense, but because strategically Biden — even as someone who seems to have lost a step or two — is fundamentally a more difficult rival for Sanders to beat.

Biden, unlike Bloomberg, has a deep reservoir of affection in the African American community that we know is robust enough to withstand the re-airing of some of his not-so-woke political positions from the 1980s and 1990s. Bloomberg so far is doing fine nationally with black voters based on having introduced himself to them through his own television ads, but it’s far from clear that will stand up to scrutiny.

Bloomberg has also been marketing himself as an ally of Obama’s, which is an effective strategy in a Democratic Party primary. But unlike Biden, Bloomberg did not, in fact, have a close relationship with Obama — delivering only a very late, churlish endorsement of his reelection campaign in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

The fact that Bloomberg got his start in electoral politics as a Republican and only registered as a Democrat in 2018 after openly flirting with third-party presidential bids in 2012 and 2016 also serves to neutralizes the critique that Sanders is not a real Democrat.

Bloomberg’s one real edge over Biden is that he’s incredibly rich.

That’s not nothing, as his recent rise in the polls illustrates. But Bloomberg’s wealth, recent history of center-right positions on a range of economic policy issues — pre-Trump he was critical of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, against raising the minimum wage, skeptical of the Affordable Care Act, and a fan of cutting Social Security and Medicare — makes him a perfect foil for Sanders’ message and also lets Sanders position himself as a stalwart Democrat versus the heterodox Bloomberg, a much better positioning for him than running as a left-wing critic of the popular Obama administration.

Sanders’s candidacy is good for Bloomberg

This roster of policy positions is why Bloomberg didn’t wind up running for president in 2016.

He took an honest look at his own record and the enemies he’d made in New York and concluded that there was no way he could win a Democratic Party primary. He also did the math on a third-party bid and concluded it would be hopeless and would most likely just end up helping a Republican. So despite evident ambition, he took a pass.

It’s the resilience of Sanders’s campaign that’s changed that calculus, by creating a bogeyman that so terrifies many Democratic Party elected officials and consultants that Bloomberg’s record no longer seems like a total nonstarter.

The billionaire mayor has basically disavowed all those old positions in favor of standard Democratic Party ones, while Sanders is pushing big new left-wing ideas that frighten many Democrats. That context uniquely creates the circumstances in which Bloomberg (as opposed to Biden or Klobuchar or some other more conventional Democrat) looks like a reasonable option to party regulars.

So between now and Super Tuesday, expect a lot more back and forth between the billionaire and the anti-billionaire, as they attempt to erase everyone else from the contest.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.