Human beings are famously lousy at thinking about large numbers, which maybe explains why it's difficult to comprehend what Michael Bloomberg is doing right now. The former New York City mayor is essentially trying to buy the presidency the legal way, by pumping huge amounts of money into various forms of PR: $100 million on ads in the first month of his campaign, $10 million for a Super Bowl spot, nearly $15 million on Google and YouTube ads. That dwarfs the spending of his competitors in the 2020 Democratic primary, and far outstrips what Donald Trump, who used to brag about self-funding his campaign, ponied up during his White House run—he spent "just" $66 million of his own money to win in 2016.
But Bloomberg is much, much richer than Trump, with an estimated net worth of about $56 billion to Trump's mere $3.1 billion (Trump's net worth or lack thereof is contentious, but that's the latest figure from Forbes). Bloomberg's limitless wealth not only allows him to buy airtime and eyeballs, it allows him to argue that he's uniquely free of being influenced by moneyed interests. He himself is a moneyed interest who deployed his wallet to pay for policy initiatives and prop up friendly politicians during his tenure as mayor. And there's evidence Bloomberg's ad spending is paying off: He's polling at around 6 percent nationally. The "Bloomberg would be a good president" takes are already coming hot off the presses.
The only thing his money hasn't bought him so far is a spot on the Democratic debate stage, and that's because he doesn't want one—which is exactly why the Democratic Party should drag him up there for everyone to see.
The Democratic debate next week is set to only feature six candidates: Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer. Those are the only people who have hit the polling and donor thresholds mandated by the Democratic National Committee. (For this debate, the DNC requires candidates to hit 5 percent in four national polls or 7 percent in two early state polls, and also have 225,000 donors.) Bloomberg is the only candidate who has hit the polling threshold but not the donor requirement, which is surely because he won't take donations—if he wanted, he could run ads soliciting small donations and get the required 225,000 people to chip in a buck or so, as his fellow billionaire candidate Steyer has done.
In other words, Bloomberg is choosing not to debate. Why should he? Most candidates seek out the debates as high-profile platforms, but Bloomberg doesn't need TV exposure when he can buy whatever publicity he wants. And in debates people can say mean things about you or disagree with you, a risk that Bloomberg might rather avoid.
His Democratic competitors are upset about this, Politico reported this week, with Sanders's campaign manager telling the outlet that Bloomberg was in effect saying, "I’m not going to answer questions. What I am going to do is try to buy this damn thing."
"Mike would be happy to debate—it’s up to the DNC to determine their rules," was the response from a Bloomberg spokesperson. That means the right thing to do is simple: The DNC should either make an exception for Bloomberg, or remove the donor thresholds for future debates so that he qualifies.
As Bloomberg surely knows, the DNC has been stubborn about its debate rules. The committee has ignored calls for a climate change–centric debate and shrugged off criticism that the polling requirements will lead to an all-white debate stage this month. What's different in this case is that the candidates complaining about being left out, like Cory Booker, aren't actively trying to game the system. Bloomberg most definitely is. He's avoiding qualifying for the debates and using the DNC as an excuse. It would be relatively simple for the DNC to remove that excuse and put him on stage to answer questions from moderators and deal with challenges from candidates he has criticized publicly, like Sanders.
It's possible of course that Bloomberg is wasting tens of millions of dollars and that his campaign will fail to catch on. Buying TV ads, even at this massive scale, is far from a foolproof strategy, especially when you're as widely disliked by primary voters as Bloomberg is. But he has garnered enough support that at this point he's a significant force in the Democratic race. That means he should be at the debates, whether he likes it or not.
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