The conventional wisdom congealed rapidly last week, even before Nevada, that the only prayer of stopping Sanders now is Mike Bloomberg dropping a nuclear ad bomb on him. Three hundred million bucks’ worth of new attack ads, or something on that order, airing in all of the Super Tuesday states — immediately.
I’m not part of that conventional wisdom. I think the race is effectively over already. Even if Bloomy went bombs away, early votes have already been banked in those states. Sanders is probably going to finish no worse than a surprisingly strong second in South Carolina regardless, creating more good buzz for him. Odds remain high that Bloomberg, Biden, and Buttigieg will divvy up moderate voters among themselves on Super Tuesday, enabling Sanders victories across multiple states even if an ad barrage succeeds in holding Bernie’s numbers a bit lower than they might otherwise have been.
I think this cake is baked. Bloomberg’s strategy of entering the race late and then swamping a divided field with ginormous ad spending almost worked. If the field truly had been divided after the early states voted, with Biden winning a state, Buttigieg winning one, Bernie winning another, circumstances would have been ripe for a big-name big-spender to swoop in and sort out the muddle. But as it is, with Bernie taking a clean sweep so far (the first time that’s ever happened in the modern primary era), there’s too much momentum. Bloomberg’s playing for second place.
I wonder if he knows it too. In rolling out this new spot, his campaign announced that it’ll be on social media only. If he’s playing to win, why not carpet-bomb Super Tuesday states with it?
The NRA paved the road to Washington for Bernie Sanders.
He spent the next three decades making sure they got a return on their investment.
— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 24, 2020
Maybe it’s a prelude to an attack he plans to make at tomorrow night’s debate, knowing that the last one got blockbuster ratings. Someone has to hit Bernie hard. At least Bloomberg’s trying. Sort of.
But the gun ad smells to me like another case of people not learning lessons from 2016. Trump was attacked relentlessly in the primaries in 2015-16 for his apostasies against dogmatic conservatism and the fundamental sleaziness of his character. Didn’t matter. Righties liked the big picture he was painting, a populist insurgency against the elite consensus on war, immigration, and trade. Voters, it turns out, will forgive a lot of ideological sins if they feel galvanized by your broader vision for the country. And so we come to Bloomberg trying to ding Bernie for having once been a pro-gun leftist. What’s a fencesitting liberal apt to do with that information? Decide that Sanders’s recent conversion to the cause of gun control simply came too late, and disqualify him? Or, admiring Bernie’s big-picture quest for a more “economically just” America, look for reasons to let him slide?
Bernie Sanders isn’t running on socialist economics. He’s running on a socialist ethic.
What sets Sanders apart from many liberal Democrats isn’t his voting record. It is a deep, animating belief that our political and economic system is unjust. https://t.co/wf9fN76emr
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) February 24, 2020
Lotta truth to that. If you share that “deep animating belief,” as many Democrats (even the majority who don’t describe themselves as socialists) do, you’re not going to get hung up on his idiosyncracies. Admittedly, having Bloomberg devote $500 million in ads targeting those idiosyncracies would be a momentous test for my theory, but I think Sanders would withstand it. And I think a lot of Democratic establishmentarians increasingly think so too:
“In 30-plus years of politics, I’ve never seen this level of doom. I’ve never had a day with so many people texting, emailing, calling me with so much doom and gloom,” said Matt Bennett of the center-left group Third Way after Sanders’ win in Nevada…
Among the pitches from pro-Biden forces to donors: Bloomberg could not overcome past policies that alienated minorities, most prominently the stop-and-frisk policing tactic he embraced as New York City mayor. They argued that if Bloomberg stays in the race, Sanders will clean up on Super Tuesday, then it’s game over…
“Everybody other than Bernie thinks everybody other than Bernie should drop out — except themselves,” said Chris Lippencott, a Democratic strategist in Texas, which votes on Super Tuesday. “Maybe the [South] Carolina results provide a little clarity as to who really has a fighting chance. Unless that happens, they’re just crabs in a bucket pulling each other down.”
Crabs in a bucket. The supreme irony of the race thus far, in fact, is that the socialist is en route to an unstoppable victory largely thanks to two billionaires who couldn’t resist running vanity campaigns this year, splintering the Not Bernie vote. Nate Cohn flagged this result from the latest poll of South Carolina:
South Carolina: Biden continues to lead among African-Americans — who make up a majority of the state's Democratic electorate — but his support has declined 19 points since the fall. Steyer has made big gains. https://t.co/e3ixMdVmH3 pic.twitter.com/CQuZgH75OS
— CBS News Poll (@CBSNewsPoll) February 23, 2020
That’s a lot of movement from Biden to Steyer, who spent big in Nevada only to finish a dismal fifth with around five percent of the vote and may be on the cusp of taking just enough votes from Joe in SC to enable a momentous Sanders sweep of the early states. Amazing.
Bloomberg may be in a position now where he’s trying to decide whether to go all-in against Bernie or to accept that it’s hopeless and start trying to turn him from an enemy into a frenemy. If he’s all-in, he’ll launch a massive anti-Sanders ad blitz. If he’s giving up, he won’t bother wasting the money and will instead start calculating whether spending on Sanders’s behalf against Trump in the general election is worth doing as a way to ingratiate himself to the presumptive nominee. Bloomberg said last month that he’ll keep his campaign organization going even after he drops out so that it can work for the Democratic candidate in the general election; his spokesman also said just this morning that he’ll support Bernie this fall if in fact he’s the nominee. I’m guessing he won’t spend as much, or maybe even anything, trying to get an anti-Wall-Street socialist elected, but it never hurts to have the president and his party owe you a favor. Either way, a Sanders win on Saturday may convince Bloomberg that aggressively contesting the race is futile, in which case so is a massive negative ad binge.
Here’s his other new ad today. This might — might — work in a general election. I don’t think it’s going to overcome the “deep animating belief” in a primary. Although maybe just the fact that Bloomberg’s willing to throw punches at Sanders when the rest of the field seems afraid too will earn him some notice and goodwill among Democratic moderates. In that sense today’s ads might give him an advantage over the centrists, if not over Bernie himself.
Fidel Castro left a dark legacy of forced labor camps, religious repression, widespread poverty, firing squads, and the murder of thousands of his own people.
But sure, Bernie, let’s talk about his literacy program. pic.twitter.com/3Xqu435uoA
— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 24, 2020