There’s one story and one story only. The entrance of Mike Bloomberg, once doubted by many (including me), now surging in the polls, to the debate stage. He should help ratings. Viewership for the past couple debates has run at 30% of the level for the introductory round. It seems voters have had their fill. When this happens to TV show, it’s time for the introduction of a key new character.
Bloomberg got to debate a few times while running for and retaining his office as Mayor of New York City. His last effort was in 2009, so you’d think he’s a bit rusty. Also, he was never considered a tremendous debater. And as all the presidential candidates will tell you, sparring with one, maybe two opponents in a mayoral, senatorial, or gubernatorial debate is nothing like these presidential scrums. Should Mike perform very well, it would be barely short of miraculous.
His job is to do better than Rick Perry did, when he parachuted in to the 2012 GOP contest and couldn’t make it out of 2011 unscathed. He’s not getting support based on presumed debate skill. Some voters and endorsers like the idea that he gets under Donald Trump’s skin. Easily and often. Others question Joe Biden’s capabilities. Ok, everyone does at this point, but some who are allergic to Democratic Socialists and candidates under 40 with thin resumes want more options. These are all different ways of saying the expectation bar is low.
The field (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren overtly, and the others at least in passing) will pile on. The moderators, having seen the other candidates already deal with tough questions, will ask their most pointed questions of Bloomberg. Candidates do get points for hanging in. It’s held Pete Buttigieg in good stead the past couple of debates, when he got more than his share of heat. While Amy Klobuchar prospered from attacking him, Mayor Pete got points for not folding.
So either Bloomberg will withstand the fusillade or not. If he wobbles, at least he’s got the pre-South Carolina debate to improve before he faces the voters on Super Tuesday. Yes, voters in many states are already voting. But that’s the thing. Regardless of how the debate goes, he already has some votes banked. The percentage of early voters who will go to the polls between now and the next debate isn’t huge. Anything but an epic collapse is recoverable.
Tom Steyer, continuing his role as the Bizzaro Bloomberg, did not qualify for the debate, though he is competing in Nevada. Not only is he part of the caucus, but he’s polling ahead of a couple of the debate qualifiers there. While Steyer is a bit of a stand in for Bloomberg in the first four states, during the debate, the roles will flip. We don’t have much data to show if there’s overlap between the two candidates. When Bloomberg is available, Steyer polls too poorly to figure out who else his voters like. When there’s no Mike, sometimes (like in Nevada and South Carolina) polls indicate a lesser billionaire who also cares about the environment will do.
Of the five candidates facing Bloomberg, the stakes are much lower for Sanders. He’s in good position for the caucus, with plenty of ground troops, and generally good poll numbers. Bernie is the clear favorite, and doesn’t need an unusually good debate performance to pull him through. He’s also got Bloomberg as a foil. Even if some observers wind up thinking Mike won their inevitable bile-filled exchanges, the people Sanders is counting on to caucus for him won’t. Bloomberg is a living, breathing, get out the vote asset for Bernie. They’ll likely each benefit from some verbal fisticuffs.
This might shock you, but the candidate who should be next most relaxed after Bernie is Biden. There isn’t much he can do. Ok, there isn’t much he will do. If I wasn’t tired of wasting my time, I’d spend 200-300 words pontificating on what he should say in the debate. But he won’t say things that I would suggest. He won’t say things that any sentient observer would suggest. But it probably doesn’t matter. He’s in better position here than Iowa and New Hampshire because the demographics are better. His campaign is indicating they think he can finish second, and are hoping to finish second, but could probably survive finishing third.
All he really needs is to avoid having either Klobuchar or Buttigieg way outshine the other. Even if they both do pretty well, that’s fine. Then both will bring a fair amount of voters to the caucus, but will have a hard time getting past Biden, and reaching viability in the majority of precincts. With the inevitable Bernie v. Bloomberg sound bites likely to clog media attention, and both challengers having a lot of work to do in finding a Nevada base, there’s a good chance Biden can run out the clock here. His South Carolina and Super Tuesday polls have dipped, but not collapsed. Regardless, it’s out of his hands.
But for Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar, the stakes couldn’t be higher. I think only one will survive Nevada at most. That doesn’t mean two will drop out right after, just that they’d be mortally wounded. And if all three stagger forward, it may be impossible for any to get enough momentum by Super Tuesday. Yes, the Biden campaign is a catastrophe. But the latest South Carolina poll, taken after his Iowa and New Hampshire face plants, has him at 28%. Our three candidates on the bubble combined for 22% in the same survey. In the poll averages there, they trail Bloomberg. Who isn’t on the ballot.
Warren is still the second choice of a very large number of votes. If she can reach viability in Nevada, she could pick up plenty of extra support and have a surprisingly good result. You could say that about Buttigieg and to a lesser extent Klobuchar too. If any one of them can clear 15% in most precincts, they’re set up for a great multiplier effect. But if they wind up at 10-11%, the reverse happens. And they’re cooked.
For all three, contrasts with Bloomberg are probably the path forward. The survivor will be the one who best uses him as a springboard. Whether it’s Warren doing a better job of “attack the billionaire” than Sanders, getting progressive voters fired up about her again, or it’s Pete using the guy more than twice his age to make the argument for generational change, or Amy effectively making the case that you don’t beat a New York billionaire in midwestern swing states with another New York billionaire.
As for exactly how they do this, that’s what their advisors are for. Each needs to do a great job at this while their opponents don’t. Otherwise, Biden will escape and take his worn out road show to victory in South Carolina.