Michael Bloomberg’s campaign is the most important in a generation.
Bloomberg is the only one capable of delivering what Democrats want. A more representative system.
In 1968 — when Michael Bloomberg was just 26 — some members of the Democrat Party were so fed up, they nominated a 145lb pig called Pigasus to share the stage with other party grandees. Theatrics aside, the Convention that year marked a low point in relations between the party and its members. How was the current system fair, they asked? Something needed to change.
Johnson, whose Presidency had been killed off by Vietnam, had confirmed he wasn’t running, and the assassination of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy earlier that year had contributed to a volatile and violent environment.
In addition to fundamental disagreements within the party over domestic and foreign policy, there was a growing unrest over how Democrat candidates were selected in the first place. Members were disillusioned with a system they saw as unfair, undemocratic, and unrepresentative.
Eight years earlier, in 1960, John F. Kennedy — the eventual election winner — tried to change this. He ran in all sixteen primaries, winning ten of them, and securing nearly one third of the popular vote. Kennedy understood he was the underdog, because that was what the party bosses told him he was. How could a catholic win an election? Instead, Humphrey was their man, or failing that, the Senate Majority Lead, Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy’s campaign was explicitly aimed at challenging assumptions of a system that was increasingly under strain and at odds with its membership.
To prove his worth, Kennedy went head to head with Humphrey in protestant heavy West Virginia. Humphrey wanted to contest there because he expected to win and silence the youngster’s campaign for good. Instead, Kennedy blew Humphrey away with 60% of the vote. Kennedy’s strategy proved to the party bosses his popularity and installed a confidence in them that he could go on to win the election. Kennedy had used the albeit skeletal primary system to prove his worth. It was innovative, if not revolutionary.
Despite these efforts, it wasn’t until 1972 that the party committed to change. Kennedy had secured the nomination through a strategy that proved his popularity with voters, and the Chicago convention was so chaotic that the party simply had to try something new.
But it was George McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, who was the first to recognise the unique power of the Iowa caucus. Because of it’s decision to caucus, not primary, and because of the complex make-up of its precincts, it had to go early. Hart saw this opportunity and poured resources into the state. McGovern lost the caucus to Edmund Muskie, but his performance sent him from 3% to 22% in the national polls.
Four years later, the Republican Party adopted the same Iowa-centric approach, and for the Democrats, Jimmy Carter became the first nominee to win the caucus and go on to secure the White House. The rest, as they say, is history.
But what on earth does all this have to do with Michael Bloomberg?
It is all to do with challenging systems.
Since 1972, the Iowa Caucus has become a seminal moment in the election. It is the first chance we get to see what voters really think, and that’s significant— just ask Barack Obama. Despite some analysis concluding its importance is decreasing, for example, it is hard to see a candidate go from 3% to 22% off the back of a strong performance there as McGovern did, candidates can stake their entire campaign on success there — just ask Pete Buttigieg.
Benjamin Franklin once famously said there are only two certainties in life. Well, I’d like to add a third. Every four years Democrat members and voters plead to the DNC that the system, once again, needs changing. There is simply no justification for the inflated importance the party puts on Iowa anymore. It is, according to Five Thirty Eight, the 42nd most representative state amongst Democrat voters.
This year, the argument is perhaps even more pertinent. Unless Corey Booker surprises us in the next seven days, there will be no people of colour on the debate stage. None. This led Julian Castro to say:
“We can’t as a Democratic Party continually and justifiably complain about Republicans who suppress the votes of people of colour and then turn around and start our nominating contest in two states that, even though they take their role seriously, hardly have any people of colour,”
And he has a point, the state is over 90% white. Castro has support from his Democrat colleagues too. Elizabeth Warren has even called Iowa and New Hampshire “two of the whitest states in the country.” Obama’s 2008 victory there may have bought the state some extra time, but it remains an anomalous result.
So far, despite the words, no one has been willing to challenge the system in a way Kennedy did in 1960. No candidate has been bold enough to mount a serious campaign for the nomination without committing fully to Iowa.
Enter Michael Bloomberg.
On the face of it, what Michael Bloomberg is doing does not sit well with people, especially in light on Kamala Harris dropping-out and citing financial issues, the idea a billionaire can buy his way to the nomination is… distasteful, to say the least. But a more nuanced look at his campaign is needed.
According to a recent Washington Post piece, Bloomberg is spending money at an unprecedented rate. Offering field organisers salaries of $6,000 per month and picking up lucrative hires such as Dan Kanninen, Mitch Stewart, and former Facebook and Google executive, Gary Briggs. Moreover, his campaign has already committed to $60 million in TV and radio ads, dwarfing the combined total of Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren ($28 million).
Kanninen, one of the strategy’s most ardent servers, highlights his bosses approach, explicitly saying how different it is going to be:
“Most people think about this race as a series of consecutive contests… we think about this race as a conversation with the American people everywhere at once”
Ignoring ingrained political wisdom by skipping the first four states and instead focusing on states with larger delegate counts is as bold — if not bolder — than Kennedy’s approach. Kennedy had to persuade a hand-full of party bosses to listen to him; Bloomberg is asking thousands of voters to suspend their judgement until he enters the race. The stakes are high, but the rewards could be vast too. Not necessarily for him, but for the party.
Kennedy’s strategy in 1960 was the start of a process that slowly shifted over twelve years. Just like Bloomberg’s campaign, change won’t be immediate, but the appetite is so clearly there. Kennedy’s approach dismantled a system that was undemocratic, unrepresentative, and unwilling to listen. His success inspired what he have now. Bloomberg’s success would be to dismantle what we have now; a system which has become what it sought to oppose.
The irony of Michael Bloomberg, the old white multi-billionaire being the architect of progressive, representative change is not lost on me. But pause any ad hominem attacks for now. Change can come from the most unlikely of places — whether you’re a 43 year old Catholic, an African American winning the Iowa Caucus, or a 77 year old billionaire. If Bloomberg’s campaign does catalyse system change, then some within the party might have to decide whether his candidacy is a price worth paying.