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Mike Bloomberg and his billions are what Democrats need to beat Trump

Mike Bloomberg dropped out of the presidential race the day after Super Tuesday. Here’s the case for his candidacy from a Vox series published earlier in 2020.

Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Vox writers are making the best case for the leading Democratic candidates. This article is the fifth in the series. Read them all here. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.

On March 4, Mike Bloomberg dropped out of the presidential race after winning few delegates on Super Tuesday.

Mike Bloomberg is not going to spend hours in selfie lines. He would probably rather not kiss your baby (though he might shake your dog’s snout), and he would pass on that funnel cake at the Iowa State Fair — and advise you to do the same. The case for the billionaire businessman, philanthropist, and former New York City mayor to be president of the United States isn’t that he gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. It’s that he is an experienced executive who has the resources to win. He has the biography, bravado, and bank account to beat Donald Trump at his own game. And Bloomberg can help the Democratic Party gain ground down the ballot.

Mike, as his campaign slogan says, can get it done.

Bloomberg, 78, was at the helm of a city with more residents than 38 states for 12 years. The path to the presidency typically doesn’t run through City Hall. But if there ever was someone who could make the trek, it would be Bloomberg. He oversaw a budget that reached nearly $70 billion by the end of his tenure, larger than the budgets of more than 40 states, and an economy about the size of South Korea. Bloomberg steered the city through two major crises — post-9/11 and the financial crash — and launched initiatives, such as a smoking ban, that have been mirrored all over the country and the world. Under Bloomberg, New Yorkers’ life expectancy increased by about three years.

There are problems in his record, including his past remarks and attitudes on gender and race, the racial disparities of some of the policies he enacted as mayor, and concerns about the influence of his money. Other Democrats have begun to attack him on these fronts, and he’ll need to have answers.

“What he says he’s going to do is what he’s going to try and do, and based on his record, he probably will get most of it done,” said Steven Strauss, a visiting professor at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School who advised the Bloomberg mayoral administration on economic policy.

The case for Bloomberg goes beyond his mayoral record. He has poured millions of dollars into fighting climate change and illegal guns, and has injected funds into federal and state elections that have made a difference — in 2018, 21 of the 24 Democratic congressional candidates Bloomberg gave money to won. That’s quite a winning streak and shows he knows how to put money in the right places. A similar strategy and spending push could be critically important in 2020 when Democrats try to hold the House and take back the Senate. In December, Bloomberg gave $10 million to House Democrats being attacked by Republicans over impeachment and $5 million to Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight effort to protect voting rights, demonstrating his commitment to boosting the party.

Bloomberg is worth more than $50 billion, and he’s not interested in anyone else’s money, committing to self-funding his campaign. Bloomberg has all the resources he needs to combat the Trump machine, and he doesn’t have to spend time and energy courting donors and then returning favors to them if and when he’s in the White House.

Mike Bloomberg campaigns in Florida.
Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, greets voters in Aventura, Florida, on January 26.
Andrew Uloza/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Bloomberg is a competent, accomplished alternative to the chaos and bravado of President Trump. He is facts over fiction, data over politics, and realism over rhetoric, and he beats Trump on his own turf. Whereas Trump says he’s a self-made billionaire, Bloomberg is the real thing, and he has the receipts to back it up. In the battle of Mike’s bank account versus Donald’s, Bloomberg LP versus the Trump Organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies versus the Trump Foundation, Bloomberg wins. While Trump claimed he wouldn’t be in anyone’s pocket, Bloomberg really isn’t. When he says he’s self-funding, he means it.

What Bloomberg promises is a steady hand in the Oval Office — and no tweets. He is a culturally liberal businessman and a technocrat focused on data over ideology. For voters who don’t like Trump but are leery of dramatic change in the midst of the longest economic expansion in US history, he feels like a solid option.

There’s evidence to suggest Bloomberg can win — he’s gaining steam in the primaries, and he would be a formidable force in the general. A February national poll found that of all the 2020 Democratic candidates, Bloomberg fares best in a head-to-head matchup with Trump. And it’s not just nationally, it’s also in states that matter: A January poll found Bloomberg performed best in Michigan, which voted for Trump in 2016. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is up for reelection there in 2020, and he could use someone at the top of the ticket doing well against Trump.

Bloomberg’s belief that there’s an appetite for his candidacy seems to be warranted: Since launching his campaign in November, Bloomberg has risen steadily in the polls and is now, according to a RealClearPolitics average, in third place behind Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden. He has also been quickly picking up endorsements.

Despite questions about his reliance on stop-and-frisk policing in New York and attitude toward communities of color, Bloomberg has gained ground with black voters as well, both nationally and in swing states such as North Carolina.

“Mike knows Trump is a fake, but the real part is that Mike is the real thing,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at NYU who has advised Bloomberg and other New York politicians.

Bloomberg has a strong record from City Hall

In the summer of 2007, Michael Nutter was about to become mayor of Philadelphia — he’d won the city’s Democratic primary, and because it’s a heavily Democratic city, he was on track to win the entire race. So he headed to New York City to meet with Bloomberg about the programs he was putting in place there. The pair met for coffee at a local deli — though as Nutter recalls, “Mike really seems to like having coffee with people at which there’s no coffee” — and later went outside for a press conference. They answered a few questions about their conversation, but then reporters started grilling Bloomberg about a recent deadly fire.

“At the end of this thing, I asked him, ‘Is it like this every day?’” Nutter told me. “And he said, ‘Yep, every day.’”

If there’s any training ground for the presidency, it might be the mayorship of New York City — tons of moving parts, a lot of delegation, a huge budget, and an enormous number of stakeholders in the mix. “There is no job in politics as close to people and as complicated on the ground as being the mayor of any city in the United States of America, let alone New York City,” Nutter said.

Mike Bloomberg walks to New York’s City Hall in 2002.
Then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg walks to City Hall in New York City in 2002.
Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Bloomberg’s second-term inauguration in 2006.
Bloomberg greets people outside City Hall as he arrives for his second-term inauguration in 2006.
Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Bloomberg’s third-term mayoral inauguration speech in 2010.
Bloomberg delivers his third-term inauguration speech at City Hall in New York City in 2010.
Hiroko Masuike/Getty Images

Bloomberg steered the city’s recoveries from both the 9/11 attacks (he was inaugurated in January 2002) and the financial crisis. He took control of the city’s school system, rezoned and worked to develop the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts and other parts of New York, and pushed for climate-conscious and green initiatives. He has experience dealing with a legislative body — the city council — and all that entails, and with competing stakeholders inside and outside the government.

According to a January poll from Gallup, health care ranks as the top issue for American voters heading into 2020. While Bloomberg may be caricatured for trying to ban giant sodas and impose a “nanny state” in New York, the public health initiatives he undertook generally made a difference. He implemented a smoking ban across city restaurants and bars in 2003, and while it was rather unpopular at the time, it’s now become commonplace across the US and the world. His administration made efforts to fight obesity, such as requiring chain restaurants to disclose calorie counts, and put in place stricter regulations on tanning salons. And his efforts achieved results: Life expectancy for New Yorkers went up.

“Mike is not an ideologue,” Moss said. “He actually has demonstrated amazing capacity to get things done using the instruments of government.”

To be sure, there are darker parts of Bloomberg’s mayoral record — his administration stuck by stop-and-frisk policing, a practice that has been discredited and that disproportionately affected people of color. In 2009, black and Latino people were nine times as likely to be stopped by New York City police as white people, and as police stops have fallen under Bill de Blasio, Bloomberg’s successor, crime has not increased. And there is evidence to suggest that just having more police walking around reduces crime. Bloomberg apologized for the practice before launching his presidential bid and has continued to do so (though some activists have said an apology does not go far enough).

Wealthy and white residents were often seen as benefiting from Bloomberg’s policies more than minority and low-income New Yorkers. Bloomberg oversaw the rezoning of parts of the city so they could be developed with skyscrapers and apartment complexes, which could result in gentrification and push out less affluent residents.

But those I spoke with about Bloomberg’s record say he was driven by data, and that created a facts-driven culture from the top down. “You couldn’t present him an idea, initiative, or review something that had been in the works without presenting the data behind it,” one former City Hall employee, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told me. “He likes to say, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’”

And Bloomberg was willing to hear people out. “What I’ve heard people say repeatedly is that you don’t always agree with the Bloomberg team, but at least you know where you stand,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director at the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance and former director of city legislative affairs under Bloomberg.

Pete Buttigieg fundraised in a wine cave. Mike Bloomberg owns the wine cave.

You cannot donate to Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in any capacity. Like, at all. Even his campaign merchandise is sold at cost. And in funding the entire thing, Bloomberg frees up his time, attention, and obligations in a way almost no other politician can. He does not have a base of donors or a party apparatus that he feels the need to obey, and that makes a difference. You want an anti-corruption candidate? Try someone who’s not taking a dime from anyone else.

While Democrats may not love the idea of a billionaire self-funding his campaign (if not potentially buying the nomination and the presidency), a billionaire listening just to himself may be better than a candidate listening to billionaires and trying to keep them happy. Bloomberg might anger people, but he’ll anger them less selectively, because his campaign isn’t beholden to anyone.

And like it or not, Bloomberg’s $50 billion-plus fortune matters in a campaign where the opponent has a huge war chest. Trump and the Republican Party raised nearly half a billion dollars last year. Bloomberg has the resources to run a 50-state campaign now. There won’t be a moment where he and his team have to think about fundraising or try to squeeze donors.

“Whatever problems Bloomberg has, he can throw money at them; whether that works or not, I don’t know, but better to have more money than less,” said Kyle Kondik, a veteran pollster and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

Bloomberg has said he is open to spending up to $1 billion to defeat Trump in 2020, and that he’ll put the force of his operation behind the 2020 nominee whether or not it’s him. But he’ll likely have an easier time parting with that money if it is to his direct benefit. “You know how much money a billion dollars is?” Bloomberg told the New York Times in January. “It’s a lot of money to me. It’s a lot of money to anybody.”

The former mayor has already dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into television, digital, and radio ads, and there is evidence his big-spend strategy is working: In a matter of months, it’s catapulted him above other candidates in the polls. And as I’ll get to below, Bloomberg’s money doesn’t just matter for himself — it matters to the entire party.

Bloomberg has spent years lifting up the Democratic Party and building an apparatus around him

One of the criticisms of former President Barack Obama is that he paid too little attention to down-ballot races and that the Democratic Party became too complacent under his administration. Bloomberg can turn that around. In fact, he’s already doing it.

While high-profile victories from progressive candidates such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) garnered a lot of media attention in the 2018 midterms, it was actually moderate candidates who drove Democratic victories in taking back the House of Representatives, many of whom had Bloomberg’s backing.

Bloomberg injected $110 million into the midterms, and where he played, he overwhelmingly won: Of the 24 House races he sought to influence, Democrats won 21, and about half of those districts had been considered Republican-leaning or toss-ups. Through Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control organization he co-founded and backs, Bloomberg was able to target contributions and mobilization efforts at the state and federal level in 2018. Even the GOP admitted Bloomberg had made a difference.

“Michael Bloomberg’s money went a long way. He defeated a lot of people by writing those $5 million checks,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-TX), now the House minority leader, told CNBC at the time.

Bloomberg’s efforts to support the Democratic Party, progressive causes, and state and local governments stretch far beyond the 2018 elections.

In 2017, Bloomberg and Harvard launched the Bloomberg Harvard Leadership Initiative, a program that trains city leaders across the country. Basically, it’s a school for mayors, and its goal is to enroll 240 cities over four years into its one-year program.

Campaign workers at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.
Office workers are seen in the campaign headquarters of Mike Bloomberg in New York City, January 30, 2020.
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Tubbs, the 29-year-old mayor of Stockton, California, was part of the 2018 class of the Bloomberg mayor boot camp. “I think that shows the foresight and vision in terms of understanding he can’t do things by himself,” Tubbs said.

Tubbs has endorsed Bloomberg’s 2020 run and is a surrogate for his campaign. So is Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia. In fact, more than a few mayors across the country are backing Bloomberg, a result of the relationships he’s cultivated with them over the years. The cynical read of this is that some of these cities and leaders have received help from Bloomberg and are paying him back, but they say their backing is genuine, and the relationship with Bloomberg is reciprocal. Under Nutter, Philadelphia implemented New York City’s 311 system for residents to report non-emergencies; under Bloomberg, New York modeled a mortgage foreclosure prevention program after Philadelphia.

Bloomberg’s appeal is to moderates, but progressives shouldn’t write him off

Many progressives have, understandably, chafed at Bloomberg’s run. The idea of a billionaire willing himself into the White House by the sheer force of his bank account is a bit unsavory, especially for Democrats and others on the left who have spent years railing against the influence of money in politics.

While Bloomberg is running as a moderate, and is obviously no Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, progressives shouldn’t be so quick to brush him aside — he has been ahead of the curve on many of the issues they care about, such as climate, health care, and guns.

A gun safety policy event in Aurora, Colorado.
Mike Bloomberg, Rep. Tom Sullivan, and Everytown for Gun Safety senior managing director Debbie Weir during a gun safety policy event in Aurora, Colorado, on December 5, 2019.
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

In 2006, for example, Bloomberg launched Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors dedicated to reducing gun violence. Six years later, after the Sandy Hook shooting, Shannon Watts, the Colorado founder of Moms Demand Action, created the parent-focused gun safety group on Facebook. In 2013, the two joined forces under Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the most influential gun control groups in the country.

“He is walking the talk when it comes to this issue. It is not just lip service; it is not political expediency. Mike fully believes that we’ve got to defeat the NRA’s agenda and end the scourge of gun violence,” Watts said.

Beyond the social issues, progressives might want to take a look at Bloomberg on economic ones as well. Is he going to enact massive redistribution of wealth? No. But in New York City, he raised property taxes and income taxes on rich people when the city found itself in a fiscal crisis post-9/11. (He didn’t love doing it, but he did it.) The tax plan he’s rolled out as part of his presidential campaign would raise taxes on rich people and corporations.

Yes, there are risks

When Bloomberg decided against running as an independent in 2016, he titled his essay explaining his decision “The risk I will not take.” But even as a Democrat in 2020, Bloomberg brings some risks with him.

He has a long record in business and in politics, and that also means a lot of baggage. One main point of criticism has been the stop-and-frisk policing policy his administration continued and expanded from Rudy Giuliani’s tenure, which disproportionately impacted black and Latino communities in New York.

Bloomberg apologized for the policy just before launching his 2020 bid, but it’s an issue that’s going to continue to dog him. Videos and audio continue to surface of Bloomberg defending the policy before the apology and speaking of people of color in crass and cold ways.

Bloomberg speaks at a predominantly black church in Brooklyn in 2019.
Mike Bloomberg speaks at a predominantly black church, Christian Cultural Center, in Brooklyn in 2019.
Yana Paskova/Getty Images

The former mayor has repeatedly apologized and pointed to areas where his record with communities of color is strong, and his surrogates and supporters of color, including Tubbs, the Stockton mayor, have come to his defense. Stop and frisk was “terrible” in New York, he tweeted in February, and so was the 1994 crime bill, which Biden helped write and Sanders voted for. “As a black man, my politics have to be [one] of grace & growth or I have no political home,” he wrote.

Bloomberg also oversaw a police department that enacted a years-long Muslim surveillance program, even while advocating to allow a mosque to be built near the World Trade Center site.

One other question hanging over Bloomberg: his and his company’s history with women. In 2007, several dozen women accused Bloomberg LP of discriminating against them while pregnant or having returned from maternity leave (the case was eventually dismissed), and Bloomberg’s attitudes and remarks toward women have been the subject of lawsuits and scrutiny as well.

A “wit and wisdom” book his friends and colleagues compiled of Bloomberg’s supposed sayings three decades ago contains a litany of crude remarks, and he and his company reportedly faced multiple lawsuits over allegedly fostering a bad workplace for women. Many of the women involved are under nondisclosure agreements and can’t talk about what happened. Not only are concerns about Bloomberg’s attitudes disturbing, but they also open the door for an October (or whenever) surprise before the general election.

Bloomberg has said he regrets telling a “bawdy joke” but has denied having anything to hide — even though he’s not releasing anyone from the NDAs, either. “We don’t have anything to hide,” he said in an appearance on The View in January. “But we made legal agreements which both sides wanted to keep things from coming out. They have a right to do that.”

Still, he would not be the first rich New Yorker with a checkered history with women and minorities the American people put in the White House.

One final reason to believe Bloomberg can win: He thinks he can

So here is the thing about Mike Bloomberg: He’s not a guy who likes to lose. Before finally pulling the trigger and deciding to run for the White House, he had waffled on the idea for years. If Bloomberg is running now, it’s because he thinks he’s got a path.

Admittedly, it’s an unusual path. He’s flooding the television airwaves in a moment when digital is considered the strategy of the future. He’s skipping the first four primary states and going straight for the delegate-rich votes. While Democrats have tended to follow the Michelle Obama model (“When they go low, we go high”), Bloomberg’s camp has no problem hitting back at Trump as a “pathological liar” about everything, including “his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan.” His social media strategy is often downright weird.

Bloomberg’s theory of the election is unconventional, but if it works, it works. And there are signs it’s working.

Read the rest of the Case For series: The case for Bernie Sanders; The case for Elizabeth Warren; the case for Joe Biden; the case for Pete Buttigieg; the case for Amy Klobuchar. Vox does not endorse individual candidates.


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