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On Politics: Moderates Search for a Savior

Email sent: Feb 12, 2020 6:20pm

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One potential leader of the Democratic Party’s moderate wing wasn’t even in New Hampshire.

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Giovanni Russonello, your morning newsletter writer taking over your afternoon edition.

The big headline from New Hampshire is that Bernie Sanders is now a clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination heading into the heart of primary season, when the playing field grows wider and more diverse.

But here’s the subhead: The party’s sizable moderate wing is in disarray. It is as obsessed with dismounting Mr. Sanders as it is unsure of how to do it. And all of the candidates auditioning for the role have big electoral flaws.

Both Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are surging, but neither has shown much of a pulse with nonwhite voters in most polls, or in the first two nominating contests. And each is facing scrutiny on matters of racial justice. The campaign of Joe Biden — who is still trying to project confidence about his support among black voters while assuring voters he’s the best general-election candidate — seems to be in free fall. And Elizabeth Warren, despite her attempts to present herself as a consensus builder, has failed to win over many middle-of-the-road Democrats.

But maybe the party’s real moderate scion wasn’t even on the ballot in New Hampshire — and won’t be in the next two voting states, either. Maybe, until recently, he wasn’t even a Democrat.


Maybe that candidate is Michael Bloomberg, who was elected mayor of New York as a Republican and later as an independent. Now a Democrat, he is sitting things out through the rest of February but will compete in all 14 of the Super Tuesday states that vote on March 3.

Since entering the race in November, Mr. Bloomberg has poured hundreds of millions of his own dollars into TV ads across the country, spending nearly 10 times as much as his closest rival (other than Tom Steyer, another self-funding billionaire). And it’s having an effect: A Quinnipiac University poll this week put him at 15 percent support nationwide, enough for a statistical tie in second place with Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren.

Among black voters — whom Mr. Bloomberg has courted through ads and the endorsements of elected officials — he has 22 percent, threatening to overtake Mr. Biden’s 27 percent, according to the Quinnipiac poll. He is weak among liberals but already as strong as Mr. Biden among moderates and conservatives.

In a Monmouth University poll, Mr. Bloomberg is a little lower, with 11 percent support over all, but that number ticks up to 14 percent when looking only at the Super Tuesday states, which he’s going after hardest. (The difference is within the poll’s margin of error.)


Of course, it will be tougher for Mr. Bloomberg to get a strong grip on the handlebars if Mr. Sanders enters Super Tuesday at cruising speed, thanks to strong performances in Nevada and South Carolina — or if either Mr. Buttigieg or Ms. Klobuchar does better than expected in those two contests.

“No one has ever been successful waiting until after the early contests,” the longtime Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said in an interview. “But nobody is applying as much money to the problem as Michael Bloomberg is. So it’s a big experiment, and nobody can say what the results will be.” (Mr. Mellman is president of a Democratic super PAC that has aired attack ads against Mr. Sanders.)

Mr. Bloomberg is not without his own vulnerabilities — especially with voters of color, a crucial bloc that would become wide open if Biden left the race.

A recording from 2015 was circulated this week in which Mr. Bloomberg bluntly defends the use of stop-and-frisk policing during his tenure as mayor, when the tactic was used disproportionately against black and Latino people across New York City. On the tape, which was recorded when Mr. Bloomberg gave a speech at the Aspen Institute, he seems to suggest that young African-American and Latino people are more prone to crime than young white people.


Mr. Bloomberg issued a statement on Tuesday seeking to explain those comments and noting that he had apologized for the overuse of stop-and-frisk. But he had defended the policy as recently as last year, and the statement didn’t directly address the role he played in aggressively expanding the use of the tactic while he was mayor.

Mr. Bloomberg is seen unfavorably by a higher percentage of Democratic voters than any other candidate, according to recent polling. “He is trailing everybody else on that metric,” Patrick Murray, the director of polling at Monmouth University, told me. “For voters who are searching around for a candidate still, or not fully committed, it gives him less of an opportunity to win their support.”

That might be because he was not himself a Democrat until late 2018. Or because he is a billionaire who is self-funding his campaign, which might turn off voters concerned about the way private money has invaded politics.

Either way, Mr. Bloomberg has yet to step foot on one important proving ground: the Democratic debate stage. His performances there could have a big impact on how voters relate to him as a candidate. That will probably change on Feb. 19 in Las Vegas, at the next Democratic debate. (The Democratic National Committee jettisoned a rule last month requiring candidates to show that their campaigns have grass-roots funding, paving the way for Mr. Bloomberg to debate.)

“He has not yet appeared on the same platform, at the same level as these other folks at the debate, and we have no idea how that’s going to go,” Mr. Mellman said.

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Want to understand what happened in New Hampshire? Watch this.

Bleary-eyed at the end of a long night of vote-counting in New Hampshire, we managed to stay up later to unpack the results. This video tells the story of why several candidates saw their fortunes change so much in the space of just a few days. Watch our analysis.

— Alexander Burns, national political correspondent

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