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Poll: Mike Bloomberg is now in second place in the Democratic primary

A new poll places Bloomberg behind Bernie Sanders nationally, and won him a spot in the Nevada debate.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg shakes hands with employees at a veteran-owned business in Virginia.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has met the criteria needed to appear in Wednesday’s Las Vegas Democratic debate, with a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that finds his support to be at 19 percent nationally.

Democratic National Committee (DNC) rules were amended in late January to state a candidate must reach 10 percent in four qualifying national polls, 12 percent in two Nevada or South Carolina polls, or have won a delegate in Iowa or New Hampshire in order to be invited to the Nevada debate. At the time, Bloomberg’s rivals criticized the DNC, arguing the rules change unfairly benefited him, as debate invitations previously required achieving a certain number of individual campaign donations, something Bloomberg lacked given he is self-funding his campaign.

Despite this criticism, the new rules remained in place, and with the NPR poll, Bloomberg now has his fourth qualifying national poll registering him at above 10 percent support, securing his spot on the stage.

The poll presents the strongest show of support Bloomberg has seen thus far in the race; his appearance in Nevada will be his debate debut, giving the mayor an opportunity to reach voters outside of his big advertising campaign.

Overall, the poll suggested the arrival of a new phase in the presidential race — one in which Sen. Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner and former Vice President Joe Biden’s support is slipping.

The national telephone poll, conducted February 13 to 16, surveyed 527 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. It found Sanders to have 31 percent support nationally, with Bloomberg registering 19 percent support, Biden 15 percent, Warren 12 percent, Sen. Amy Klobuchar 9 percent, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg 8 percent.

The final remaining candidates, entrepreneur Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, had 2 percent and less than 1 percent support, respectively. The poll has a 5.4 percentage point margin of error, a significant one, but also one that does not affect Sanders’s position (it could, however, mean that those beneath him rank differently than the results suggest — for instance, that Biden is actually in second place, and Bloomberg in third).

Although these results present the strongest national showing for Sanders and Bloomberg of any poll taken so far in the race, they are of a kind with other recent surveys. Biden habitually topped national polls until his poor showing in New Hampshire’s primary — in which he came in fifth, with about 8 percent of the vote, while Sanders came in first, with about 25 of the vote.

Following that victory — and a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, in which he received the most votes — Sanders appeared to replace Biden as the primary’s national frontrunner. For instance, a recent Monmouth University poll found the Vermont senator to be 10 percentage points ahead of his closest competitor, Biden.

This dynamic could certainly change following the Nevada caucuses next Saturday and the South Carolina primary on February 29, but the fact Sanders leads all but one of the six major national polls take after New Hampshire suggests his lead is a real one, and the size of his advantage in the NPR poll — the most recently fielded survey — suggests his lead is growing.

Bloomberg’s base of support is also growing, making the debate both a challenge and opportunity

Bloomberg chose not to compete in the first four caucus and primary states — he will not be a caucus choice in Nevada despite being on the debate stage — and has blanketed the country with over $400 million in advertising since he entered the race last November.

He has, however, largely avoided television appearances. The first televised interview of Bloomberg’s campaign, conducted by Gayle King for CBS This Morning, was roundly criticized for how he described his fortune, his description of Sen. Cory Booker as “well-spoken,” and for making misleading statements about past criticisms of his support for the unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program while mayor of New York.

Since then, the mayor has weathered attacks for his past comments on race and policing — some of which led to him being called a racist — as well as new questions about allegations of sexual harassment and sexism he faced while running his eponymous company.

This will make his debate appearance both an opportunity for the mayor, and a challenge. Strong performances in past debates have been boons to campaigns, from Sen. Kamala Harris rising in the polls following a tense exchange she had with Biden in last June’s debate, to Klobuchar riding a lauded performance to a third place finish in New Hampshire.

Bloomberg will have the opportunity to respond to these critiques of his record live on television on Wednesday, offering a defense of himself and giving voters a chance to see how the former mayor responds to tough questions. A commanding performance could give Bloomberg a further boost in the polls.

But failing to successfully respond to these questions could erode Bloomberg’s support. As could being subject to attacks from his rivals. Sanders and Bloomberg have spent much of the past few days attacking one another, with Bloomberg calling Sanders Trump-like and Sanders reminding voters Bloomberg and Trump used to golf together. Other candidates have also ramped up their attacks on Bloomberg; Warren, for instance, has criticized his past statements on housing and race.

How the debate changes a dynamic race remains to be seen, as does the wisdom of Bloomberg agreeing to appear. But for the time being, it would appear that he is in a strong position heading into Super Tuesday — the first races on which he will appear on the ballot.

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