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How Michael Bloomberg’s Late Bid For The Democratic Nomination Could Go

At a point in the calendar where the field of presidential candidates should be winnowing, the number of candidates is actually going up. On Thursday, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president. On Sunday, he made his public announcement. We’ll be including him in our various 2020 trackers, like endorsements and our forthcoming polling average, and we’ll devote an article — this article, in fact — to analyzing his chances of winning the nomination.

In short, they’re not very good.

As I wrote two weeks ago, when we first learned Bloomberg was (re)considering a campaign, he is jumping into a race that has no room for him. It would be unprecedented for someone who enters the presidential race this late to win the nomination in the modern era. Other candidates have been building campaign organizations and relationships for months. And the electorate is happy with the existing field. In the most recent CBS News/YouGov battleground poll of 18 key primary states, 78 percent of Democrats were satisfied with their candidates; only 22 percent wanted more choices.

And as I wrote one week ago, Bloomberg’s polling numbers have been uninspiring since pollsters started adding him to their 2020 surveys. He has not yet hit the 4 percent support he needs in any poll that would count toward qualifying him for the December Democratic debate (another disadvantage to starting so late — he’s given himself only a narrow window to qualify before the Dec. 12 deadline). In fact, in the five national primary polls to include him since the beginning of November, he has averaged just 2 percent support.

While some unknown candidates (like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg) have been able to overcome even lower polling numbers early in the race, it is no longer early in the race, and Bloomberg is not unknown. Sixty-eight percent of likely Democratic primary voters are able to form an opinion of Bloomberg, again according to an average of national polls from November. They are split, too, on whether those opinions are positive (37 percent rated him favorably) or negative (31 percent rated him unfavorably). Those mediocre favorability ratings — among members of his own party, remember — are a major hurdle to him winning the nomination. Being popular is, generally speaking, helpful to a campaign (big surprise, I know).

But we know Bloomberg, at least, still thinks he has a shot at the nomination — so what might be his strategy? Geographically, his campaign-in-waiting has already tipped its hand: Bloomberg plans to skip the first four states on the primary calendar and focus on winning the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states instead. (He won’t even be on the ballot in New Hampshire.) Needless to say, this strategy flies in the face of conventional wisdom about how to win a presidential primary, but the Bloomberg team feels it doesn’t have a choice: Other candidates simply have too much of a head start organizing in the early states. However, Bloomberg is a multi-billionaire and has said he will self-fund his campaign, so he probably does have the resources to get off the ground quickly in states where he doesn’t yet face a lot of competition. But there’s no guarantee that his approach would work — especially after a month of exuberant headlines about his rivals winning Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

In fact, previous presidential candidates who tried some version of this strategy failed miserably. For instance, in 2008, when Rudy Giuliani was still best remembered as a former New York City mayor, he counted on a win in the Florida Republican primary to neutralize his expected losses elsewhere. He led in the Florida polls — often by huge margins — right up until Iowa and New Hampshire. But afterward, then-Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney surged past Guiliani in the Sunshine State, and he dropped out after placing third there. Similarly, in 1988, then-Sen. Al Gore attempted to win the Democratic nomination by ignoring Iowa and New Hampshire and focusing on winning a bunch of Super Tuesday contests in the South, his home region. And while Gore did win several states that day, it still didn’t translate into the momentum he needed in subsequent contests, and he too lost the nomination. Indeed, Bloomberg would be trying to join a short list of only two modern presidential candidates who won their party’s nomination despite losing both Iowa and New Hampshire.

As for the coalition Bloomberg might be trying to cobble together, right now there’s only one corner of the Democratic Party that seems like a good fit for him: party loyalists. After all, it was Democratic donors who reportedly encouraged Bloomberg to reconsider his initial decision not to run, and his business-friendly views on economic issues could endear him to the moderate, college-educated Democrats who have fueled Buttigieg’s rise. But those same moderate policies would make Bloomberg a non-starter with the left, an increasingly influential group. And in his final mayoral election in New York City, he did poorly in neighborhoods with large populations of black voters, a major bellwether bloc in Democratic presidential primaries, so it’s hard to see him recreating Biden’s as-yet-effective coalition of party loyalists and black voters.

However, Bloomberg appears to recognize his need to reach out to the black community if he wants to be the Democratic nominee. Last weekend, at a predominantly African American church in Brooklyn, he apologized for his yearslong defense of “stop and frisk,” a policing tactic that a federal court ruled targeted black and Latino New Yorkers discriminatorily. But not all black politicians were satisfied, with former presidential candidate Al Sharpton telling MSNBC, “It’s going to take more than one speech for people to forgive and forget … He’s going to have to earn it.”

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.