Barely a week after launching his late bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is already making his presence felt, surging past more tenured candidates in the polls and drawing backhanded attacks from his more liberal adversaries about his substantial wealth.
Mr. Bloomberg has already put close to $60 million into ad buys, betting that a national TV blitz and a focus on the big Super Tuesday states can overcome essentially skipping the earlier contests.
“I think when people are kind of in a dither — ‘whom are we going to get?’ — when a person comes in with that kind of cash I think that it can create an immediate bump,” said Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Towson University in Towson, Maryland. “I think he’s a little more moderate than the crazies.”
Mr. Bloomberg hit 5% support in a Morning Consult poll released this week, good for a tie for fifth place with Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California, who dropped out of the race Tuesday. He was also in fifth place, at 6% support, in a Hill-Harris X poll released this week.
The billionaire publisher has said he won’t accept campaign contributions, and his campaign confirmed that such a plan remains in place.
Instead, he’s been making his case across the airwaves and directly to voters in states like Virginia and Arizona. This week, he took his campaign to Jackson, Mississippi, tying his appearance there to a rollout of a criminal justice reform plan.
Mr. Bloomberg, who famously championed the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policing policies before a recent about-face, said he wants to end the era of “mass incarceration.”
“We cut incarceration by 39% in New York City, while also cutting crime to record lows — and we can do the same nationally,” he said.
Even if the geographically unique campaign succeeds, his vow to decline campaign contributions would leave him on the outside looking in at the Democratic presidential debates. The Democratic National Committee has set goals that candidates must meet to qualify, and one of them is getting a minimum number of individual donors.
The campaign of fellow billionaire Tom Steyer said this week that he had surpassed the 200,000 unique donor threshold necessary to qualify for the debate later this month in Los Angeles.
Mr. Bloomberg said he’d leave it up to the DNC to set its own rules, but that he wants to talk directly to the public about his accomplishments and what he would deliver on in the future.
“They’re not just empty promises. And if you can say that in a debate, okay, although it’s hard to do that,” he said during a recent campaign stop in Virginia. “I think I’d be much better off talking to the public just like I’m doing now.”
As of early this week, Mr. Bloomberg had already put more than $57 million into advertising, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics — second among the 2020 Democratic field to the approximately $60 million spent by Mr. Steyer.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, was the next-closest, at $15.6 million.
Mr. Bloomberg’s sudden splash and “shock and awe” advertising blitz has drawn the consternation of some of his Democratic rivals, who say it’s presumptuous to think the crowded 2020 field needs an eleventh-hour white knight to save the candidates from themselves.
“If the debate stage stays what it is right now, this 2020 election will have more billionaires than black people,” Sen. Cory A. Booker of New Jersey said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “I don’t have those personal millions to sustain” a campaign.
Ms. Harris alluded to Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Steyer in saying this week that it’s become harder and harder to raise the money she needs to run a viable campaign.
“I’m not a billionaire. I can’t fund my own campaign,” she said.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro wrote a fundraising missive this week where he said he doesn’t get the sense that people are looking for a “billionaire savior.”
“These billionaires feel so entitled to the nomination — Mayor Bloomberg even said that he doesn’t need to participate in the Democratic Debates because he can flood the race with money regardless — that they don’t care about what the people want,” he said.
Mr. Bloomberg responded to such criticism by saying that he’s been spending his resources on things that matter to him for years and that he’s used his wealth to “give back to help America.”
“I’m now in the race. I’m fully committed to defeating Donald Trump,” he said. “I think he’s an existential threat to our country. I’m going to make my case and let the voters, who are plenty smart, make their choice.”
Though he’s shot up in some recent surveys, not all of the recent polling has been positive for him.
About 10% of likely Iowa Democratic caucus attendees said they do not want to see Mr. Bloomberg winning the nomination, according to a recent Iowa State University/Civiqs poll — good for fifth place behind former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
“The Iowa Democrats seem pretty happy with the slate of nominees, and so there is this sort of sense of, ‘why?’” said Dave Peterson, a political science professor at ISU who helps run the poll.
He said there would probably be somewhat of a negative reaction to anyone getting in the race at this late stage.
“‘We’ve been seeing candidates for 11 months now — what makes you so special to think you could skip all of that?’” he said. “And then, I do think there is a little bit of ‘well, Bloomberg thinks he’s special and is going to essentially skip Iowa,’ which Iowans don’t tend to like.”
Mr. Vatz said Mr. Bloomberg’s timing isn’t necessarily the issue, but he was skeptical that he would fit in among a crop of candidates who routinely rail against the corrupting influence of billionaires and the wealthy.
“Bloomberg kind of personifies the guy that the Democratic Party says as a first principle, ‘we don’t want somebody who is that rich,’” he said.