Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren seem to be having fun clowning billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lately. The question is whether they’ll get the chance to say it to his face.
Bloomberg’s pledge not to accept any donations for his late-entry bid for the Democratic presidential nomination means that, as the rules currently stand, he'll never be on a debate stage opposite his progressive opponents.
The Democratic National Committee requires a candidate to have a certain number of donations to qualify (200,000 unique donors for the December debate, for instance). So unless the DNC changes its debate qualification rules, the entirely self-funding Bloomberg would not make the cut.
There's also a polling threshold, which Bloomberg has yet to hit. Bloomberg registered at 3% in the latest Quinnipiac poll, released Tuesday — matching longtime candidates like Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, who have qualified for the December 19 debate with previous polling marks, and surpassing candidates like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Cory Booker, and Andrew Yang, who are on the cusp.
Bloomberg also bested the other billionaire in the race, Tom Steyer, who spent millions of his own dollars on digital ads to make the donor threshold but has yet to meet the December debate polling metrics. But as relatively good as Bloomberg’s marks are for a late entrant, they aren't good enough to meet the polling criteria the DNC set to winnow down the debate stages.
So for now, Bloomberg, like Steyer, is exactly where he belongs: not on the stage. Things could change dramatically if the millions he’s pumping into advertising begin to pay off in the form of poll numbers that could actually qualify him for a debate.
John Zogby, who polled for Bloomberg in the 1990s, said the former mayor could make a serious splash in the race because of his intense competitiveness, if for no other reason.
“If he joins a fight, it's because he knows he can win it. He can't even fathom losing, and so it would be hard to see him giving up. At least that's been his past,” Zogby said.
In that sense, Bloomberg has put the DNC in somewhat of a lose-lose situation.
On the one hand, other candidates would almost certainly decry the DNC if it decided to change its rules to accommodate the latest billionaire in the race. On the other hand, if Bloomberg's ad blitz strategy works and he starts polling well, it could be preposterous not to allow a major candidate on the stage.
And wouldn't progressives, in that case, actually want him on the stage to be able to debate him face to face? Warren and Sanders have already essentially painted Bloomberg as exhibit A for why they’re running: a plutocrat trying to buy American democracy.
For his part, Bloomberg doesn’t seem to be putting too much importance on the debates, just like he doesn’t seem to care too much about skipping the all-important early state caucuses and primaries. When asked Monday whether he’d talked to the DNC about qualifying for the debates, he said, “it’s up to the DNC to … set the rules and if they set the rules where I qualify, I would certainly debate. If they set the rules where I don’t qualify, then I won’t.”
“What I want to do is talk directly to the public and explain what I’ve done, and what I would do, and give them some comfort that because of what I did in the past, I will deliver in the future. They’re not just empty promises,” Bloomberg continued. “And if you can say that in a debate, OK, although it’s hard to do that. I think I’d be much better off talking to the public just like I’m doing now.”
DNC Chairman Tom Perez was asked last week about whether they'd relax the rules to accommodate Bloomberg, and he did not seem to rule it out — not necessarily because of Bloomberg but because by early next year voters will be casting ballots and so they may revisit the thresholds.
“We haven't set the rules for after the first of the year, and that's something that we're doing right now and we always set the rules early enough so that we can give notice to the campaigns,” Perez said. “Right now, zero votes have been cast. And so the voters haven't spoken. What should the rules be once the voters have spoken and we have some actual data from states? That's the question that we are considering."
Cover: Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks during a press conference to discuss his presidential run on November 25, 2019, in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)