Opinion: New Hampshire's winner? Bloomberg, as panicked Democrats flock to a billionaire

Will Bunch

When former Vice President Joe Biden entered the 2020 presidential race last spring, he surged to the top of the Democratic polls with support from voters like Gina Seklecki, a corporate executive assistant from central Bucks County in Pennsylvania.

She said she liked the 77-year-old’s experience and thought “he would be the best to guide us out of this nightmare and begin repairing the massive damage being done every single day” by President Donald Trump.

More than 450 people listen as Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg campaigns inside The Eastern Detroit in Eastern Market, Tuesday.

But now Seklecki feels that Biden has been weakened by failing to respond forcefully to months of attacks from Team Trump about the business dealings of his son, Hunter Biden.

Yet plans from his rivals like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on “Medicare for All” and universal college are too far left for her. Increasingly, Seklecki told me by email on Monday, she’s moving toward a candidate who didn’t show up in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

“Lately I find myself drawn to Mike Bloomberg,” she said. “His policies are aligned enough with policies I support, especially on gun safety. His ads are scathing, yet dignified. His campaign brutally trolled Trump during the Oscars and it was perfectly executed. He's got the right temperament and experience to take Trump on and win. He is everything Trump wants to be, but will never be.”

Seklecki is hardly alone. A new Quinnipiac University nationwide poll on Monday confirmed what you can see just driving around the politically red-to-blue Philadelphia suburbs, where Bloomberg lawn signs are suddenly sprouting faster than the climate-change-powered crocuses, and the former New York mayor is increasingly the talk of the checkout line at Whole Foods.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by his wife Jane O'Meara Sanders, arrives to speak to supporters at a primary night election rally in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

Improbably, incredibly, Mike Bloomberg — a former Republican who twice supported George W. Bush and is America's eighth richest man, running in a party thought to be moving left in income inequality — is surging out of nowhere toward the top of the 2020 Democratic field, emerging as the centrist rival to the new left-leaning front-runner, Sanders.

The 78-year-old Bloomberg seems to have “won” the Iowa caucuses and Tuesday night’s New Hampshire primary with his unconventional strategy of sitting them out.

By anticipating Biden’s implosion before almost any of the cable-TV pundits did, and then by carpet-bombing March 3 Super Tuesday states like North Carolina and Virginia with ads while all the journalists were distracted by Iowa and the Democrats’ tech meltdown, and while Biden, Sanders and inexperienced newcomer Pete Buttigieg tear each other apart and the media erases Warren.

When I first started writing this column in my head, I planned to say that Bloomberg won New Hampshire without getting a single vote. But then the tiny ski resort of Dixville Notch, N.H., voted at the turn of midnight Tuesday, and the New Yorker got three write-in ballots (including, maybe fittingly, one Republican).

Sometimes the omens just write themselves!

Why is this happening so suddenly? The Democrats’ Iowa disaster came at the same time as Trump’s impeachment acquittal, a Gallup Poll (perhaps an outlier) showing surging approval for the president and economic data that will give voters who don’t care about the president’s corruption, crudeness or bigotry a rationale to vote Republican.

The whiff of concern about Biden (too feeble), Buttigieg (either too young or too contrived), Sanders (too socialist), Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (too few Y chromosomes) became a New-Jersey-refinery-level stench of unvarnished fear. Suddenly, an oligarch seems the only way to oust a dictator.

“Each candidate is flawed,“ David Diamond, a 60-year-old attorney from Napa, Calif., told me by email. “Who can beat the narcissistic psychopath in the White House? That’s all that matters.”

A frustrated backer of early dropout Sen. Kamala Harris, Diamond was unenthusiastically weighing Warren — and he and his wife were seriously discussing leaving the country if Trump is reelected — when he researched Bloomberg and discovered he liked his policies and that they shared a background as middle-class Jewish kids from Massachusetts.

“It dawns on me that Mike just might be our best shot to beat the lying traitorous con artist,” said Diamond, who volunteered for the campaign on Bloomberg’s website.

But affluent suburban voters — the ones who drove the Democratic takeback of the House in 2018 — are only part of the story. The Quinnipiac poll that showed Bloomberg spiking to 15% and third place, behind only Sanders (25%) and the fast-fading Biden (17%) also revealed that the New Yorker’s heavy advertising on African American media and his backing from some prominent city leaders is winning major support from black voters.

Here in Philadelphia, Michael Nutter was mayor when the city received several large grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies on issues such as climate change and juvenile justice, and Nutter even landed a paid fellowship with a Bloomberg-affiliated nonprofit after leaving City Hall.

Today, Nutter is one of a number of former and current big-city mayors — all from places where the billionaire has spread philanthropic dough — to endorse Bloomberg. Now that effort — and those incessant ads — are converting voters.

Bloomberg’s mind-boggling Pentagon-sized ad budget — $344 million and counting, or more than 10 times what Sanders has spent — might not work if he weren’t selling a brand of cereal that a lot of Democrats are suddenly craving.

Sure, he checks off the right boxes for the party faithful on climate and guns, but what voters seem to really like is his ruthless efficiency and his ability to take it to Trump as an in-your-face New Yorker who’s an actual billionaire, not a fake one.

Cliff Schecter, a veteran Democratic media consultant (and Penn grad) who’s now based in Cincinnati, told me more and more of his middle-class and upper-middle-class Ohio neighbors are talking up Bloomberg, because they like the way his TV ads are taking it directly to Trump.

He said many are saying “I only care about winning.” Wearing my tattered B-list pundit hat, and as a political junkie since the day that a 9-year-old boy watched on TV as cops pummeled hippies at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, I find the Bloomberg surge a heck of a story, not quite like anything I’ve seen before.

But as a human being with a pulse and grave concerns about the health of American democracy, I find it alarming. And the opinion writer in me wants you to know my opinion is still that Warren is the best candidate by far, because her policies would curb the rampant inequality that allows someone like Bloomberg to buy the White House, and because a Warren win would slap back at the patriarchy of which Bloomberg is a charter member.

But here’s what else the “I only care about winning” Bloomberg voters ought to consider: He may not be your best shot at winning. First off, Bloomberg’s ascendancy is going to tear the Democratic Party in two ahead of November.

If the current trends continue, the race for the nomination could come down to primarily Bloomberg and Sanders, whose early victories and dedicated core of young supporters (some of whom, though not all, subscribe to the notion of “Bernie or bust”) ensure that the left-wing candidate will be viable and stay in the race until the party confab this July in Milwaukee.

Then what? If the party elites coalesce to hand the nomination to Bloomberg, or if — heaven forbid — the convention goes to a second ballot and so-called superdelegates put the billionaire over the top, Milwaukee might give Chicago 1968 a run for its money in the chaos-and-dysfunction department.

And a lot of young or left-leaning voters will stay home Nov. 3 or find the 2020 equivalent of Jill Stein (Tulsi? Is that you?) — a recipe for a Trump win. But let’s suppose Bloomberg gets the nomination without a Milwaukee brouhaha.

The Trump campaign will have a field day rallying the president’s Rust Belt, white working-class base against a coastal elitist who wants to take away your gun and your Big Gulp.

And those voters now swarming to Bloomberg? Suburban women won’t be able to log into Facebook without hearing — either from the Trump campaign or their pals at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg — about the many, many crude and misogynistic things Bloomberg has said to or about the opposite sex over his many, many years.

And the ink hadn’t dried yet on the Quinnipiac poll before black political thought leaders on Twitter like New York Times columnist Charles Blow began melting down over Bloomberg’s reactionary record on racial issues — his unbroken support for occupation-style “stop and frisk” in black and brown neighborhoods, his fighting the lawsuit by the wrongly convicted Central Park 5, etc.

In 2016, Facebook ads going after Hillary Clinton's past, such as her “superpredator” remark about young black men, depressed the African American turnout. Such an effort targeting Bloomberg will be much more robust.

Most importantly, the current euphoria over Bloomberg in some quarters overlooks what a profoundly depressing exercise this would be — especially for anyone clinging to the quaint, dying idea that a democratic election should be a marketplace not of dollars but of ideas, and may the best man or (heaven forbid, apparently) woman win.

No, voters might trudge to their polling place in nine months forced to choose between a full-on authoritarian determined to keep the American presidency by cheating and demagoguery, or a billionaire who’s buying the office, holding himself out as benevolent philosopher king.

If it comes down to Bloomberg vs. Trump, I will hold my nose and vote for the man who won’t let my grandchildren drown from climate change. But no matter who wins, the impossible mission of saving the American Experiment would begin on Nov. 4.

Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.