As the Iowa caucuses approach, all bets are off.
This year’s Democratic contenders have spent months appealing to a narrow segment of their own party’s voters in ways that may weaken whoever ultimately emerges to face Donald Trump in the fall. The only wannabe who has managed to avoid persuading non-activist Democrats that he isn’t some sort of alien is former Vice President Joe Biden who, for all his weaknesses as a candidate, has managed to avoid falling into the left-wing fever swamps from which his competitors seem to have emerged.
The activist left may see a racist under every bed, believe their country is a force for evil and want to turn the most economically successful nation in history into a socialist “workers’ paradise,” but most Democratic voters don’t. Many of these voters have been with Mr. Biden not just because they believe him to be a stronger general election candidate than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but because they see him as more “moderate.” These voters may turn to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg of all people if Mr. Biden is seriously wounded in the early going and no one emerges from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as a clear front-runner.
Polls of “likely caucus attendees” show the front-runners rather tightly grouped in Iowa with Mr. Sanders in the lead and the candidate with the best ground operation in the state will run three or four points ahead of the polling by turning “likely” caucus attendees into actual caucus attendees. Since the Vermont senator’s ground forces are experienced, proven and fired up, that makes him the likely winner.
If Bernie wins Iowa and New Hampshire and Mr. Biden fails to place second in either state, Mr. Biden will depend on South Carolina to stay alive, but will come out of the first contests with little momentum or cash. For a former vice president and putative front-runner, Mr. Biden has already proven himself a poor fundraiser. The two then will stumble toward the Super Tuesday showdown. At this stage, money becomes incredibly important; these March primaries are costly and in the past candidates have counted on the momentum of earlier victories to raise what they need to compete in them.
Enter Mr. Bloomberg, who skipped the early states and the debates because, unlike the others, he doesn’t need to count on winning in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina to raise the funds to compete on Super Tuesday and beyond. Mr. Bloomberg is the ultimate self-funder who seems prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money, and he’ll be competing against a wounded Joe Biden and a left-winger unacceptable to many voters who will go to the polls unsure if the others can actually handle Donald Trump in November.
In such a race, Mr. Bloomberg looks clean because he hasn’t been down in the mud with the rest of the field, hasn’t been rejected by voters in one or more of the first three contests, isn’t viewed as a crazed left-wing socialist, and has more money to spend than any candidate in history.When Mr. Bloomberg announced that he was a candidate but would skip the early primary and caucus states, the common wisdom among pundits was that he had no chance. In a normal year and with normal contenders, the mayor adopted a strategy that has never worked. But this isn’t a normal year, and Mr. Bloomberg is not a normal contender.
Mr. Bloomberg has several advantages over the rest of the field if Democratic primary voters conclude that Mr. Biden simply isn’t up to the task of taking on and beating Mr. Trump in November. While the diminutive New Yorker lacks Mr. Biden’s appeal to black voters, he can appeal to those Democrats who are neither as left-wing as Mr. Sanders nor convinced that a young, mediocre small Indiana town mayor can take out the most powerful man in the world.
Mr. Bloomberg has his flaws. He’s not a particularly exciting campaigner. Liberal Democrats don’t trust him. Activists who would rather tar and feather than nominate a billionaire find him distasteful. Many of the “deplorables” who left the Democratic Party in disgust to vote for Mr. Trump in 2016 will be turned off by his hatred of guns, popcorn and soft drinks, but even they may find him less obnoxious than the others. For all his faults, he was, after all, a pretty good mayor not of a village, but of New York City … and he has those billions that he seems perfectly willing to spend to get his way.
If Mr. Biden’s star wanes and Democratic Trump-hating primary voters are forced to choose between a liberal but seemingly sane billionaire who they conclude might have a chance in November and a bunch of candidates they suspect in both their heads and hearts won’t be able to compete against the president, what was viewed early as a flawed strategy could make Mr. Bloomberg the man to beat.