I did not think that Mike Bloomberg would be “a thing” in the 2020 Democratic primary. I’m not certain he will still be “a thing” when all is said and done, but his name has been on our lips of late. It helps to have seemingly unlimited funds with which to buy advertisements, of course. But his plausibility as a presidential candidate is built on something more culturally substantive — a default image of what leadership looks like to Americans — white and male and rich. Though his polling numbers appear to have slipped following his first debate appearance, the significance of the Bloomberg candidacy goes beyond itself: his rise — and stall — tells us something about what Democratic voters project on to candidates, what they’re willing to tolerate from them, and what the limits of their imagination might be when it comes to picturing the next nominee.
A different flavor of acid-tongued billionaire, Bloomberg has pitched himself as uniquely suited to beat President Trump. Bloomberg’s 2020 image — buoyed by TV ads and TV coverage — is the get-it-done former mayor of New York City who is equipped to handle Trump’s vindictive style of campaigning. “I know how to deal with New York bullies,” Bloomberg said of the president recently. “Somebody said that he’s taller than me, calls me, ‘Little Mike.’ And the answer is, ‘Donald, where I come from we measure your height from the neck up.’”
A mid-February, pre-Nevada debate NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll gives a snapshot of where his strongest support comes from. In the national poll, Bloomberg received 19 percent of support from all Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, second only to Sanders. At 24 percent, he was also the second choice of non-college educated white voters and suburban and rural voters, a handy demographic to poll well with come the general election — white people are the majority in 90 percent of America’s suburban and small metro counties. Black voters in the survey preferred Biden and Sanders to Bloomberg, but he still received 16 percent of black support.
But in the past two weeks, things have gotten shakier for Bloomberg. In the FiveThirtyEight forecast, Bloomberg currently now has a 2 percent chance of earning a majority of delegates, down from a high of 10 percent. He’s behind Sanders, “no one” (what happens when no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates) and Joe Biden. That he trails Biden is an issue, since Bloomberg entered the race largely to provide a moderate alternative to the former vice president.
His anemic debate performance last week may have had some effect on his slide in the polls. He was attacked for his history of sexist comments and his long-time support of stop and frisk policing policies. A Morning Consult poll shows that Bloomberg lost three percentage points after the debate, falling from 20 percent to 17 percent support in their surveys — his net favorability, meanwhile, fell 20 points But what has really stunted his appeal? Is it his decidedly un-politically correct past, including the use of non-disclosure agreements to prevent women from talking about their allegations against him? Or his flat affect and inability to get into the fray of the fast-moving, sharp debates? Has Bloomberg’s past come back to haunt him or is it that his political abilities can’t stand up to the present-day competition?
In the seven years since Bloomberg left elected office, much has changed. A feature of the Trump presidency has been national debates over “PC culture” — think outrage from certain corners at the practice of kneeling at NFL games to protest police violence or the public’s division over whether Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had committed sexual assault as a teenager. Trump keeps going back to the PC culture well because it’s deep; a 2019 survey found that 48 percent of the American public thought that “there’s too much political correctness in the country today” as opposed to “too much prejudice” — 18 percent of that group were Democrats, and 89 percent were white.
It might be that voters, up until the first debate in which Bloomberg appeared, didn’t know all that much about him outside of the fact that he’s a finance billionaire from New York City — and many Americans perhaps ascribe a certain blunt, no-bullshit personality type with that archetype. The idea that he might say what’s on his mind, however inappropriate or however much it goes against the grain of what’s polite in well-educated liberal circles — what’s politically correct — is perhaps one of the reasons why some Democratic voters like Bloomberg. Or, at the very least, what makes them think he has what it takes to compete with Trump and to win back some of Trump’s voters. Sanders, too, has a sheen of “anti-PC culture” given that his reputation is built on his “authenticity” and his I-won’t-call-you-on-your-birthday grumpiness.
But are Democrats only willing to tolerate that veneer of anti-PC posturing in their politicians up to a point? Did the sexism allegations leveled against Bloomberg during the debate prove too much for Democratic voters to stomach? Were the specifics enough to shatter the image voters might have created of him in their heads? It’s difficult to tell, but on this point, it might be that Bloomberg’s candidacy is a test of sorts for the Democratic Party, helping discern whether there is tolerance for not just an anti-PC affect in candidates, but actual actions that go against the spirit of feminist and racial tolerance movements the party has thrown its weight behind.
Regardless of whether Bloomberg’s support continues to weaken, his initial rise in the polls as Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Kamala Harris dropped out of the race might say something about what Democratic voters think it takes to win in a general election. All three were candidates of color running progressive, politically correct campaigns. Voters might just surmise that campaigns that are vocally attuned to promoting a “politically correct” agenda won’t be palatable to the majority of American voters, or voters in key swing states.
Remember, also, that Elizabeth Warren, once a frontrunner and another “PC” candidate, has fallen in the polls as Bloomberg has risen. That poses another test of the Democratic electorate: whether it is willing to abide by systemic societal sexism against female candidates. In other words, anti-PC behavior in and of itself.
Warren has of course been dinged for being too liberal on health care, but many voters who like Sanders don’t necessarily like her despite the fact that she and Sanders share a general worldview. A liberal woman is perhaps more likely to be painted into the “woke” corner, which a voter may assume is certain death in a general election. Democratic voters express pessimism about whether other Americans would be willing to accept a female candidate: a late January USA Today/Ipsos poll found that 68 percent of likely Democratic primary voters say the nation is ready to elect a woman as president, which is 7 percentage points lower than six months prior. Seventy-one percent of Americans said they’d be comfortable with a woman president but just 33 percent said their neighbors would feel the same. Pragmatic Democratic voters focused on “electability” might couch their move away from Warren as pragmatism, though it is also sexism — sexism refracted through a broader societal lens, reflective of our culture’s bias against the leadership prowess of women. But sexism all the same.
The testing of these “anti-PC” boundaries will continue to follow the Democrats well past the presidential election, though the wide array of primary candidates makes for a neat demonstration of the various threads in the knotty concept. Much of the conversation this primary has been about how liberal the Democratic nominee should be. Inherent in that is how politically correct the nominee should be in order to appeal to Democrats. Bloomberg’s record of anti-PC actions might prove to be too much for these voters but it also might be that there’s such a thing as too much PC, even for a Democrat. The balance is delicate and evolving and it’s possible that equilibrium won’t be reached in 2020, despite the high stakes.