Money will buy a lot in this life, but not everything. It can’t buy you love, as the Beatles reminded us in 1964, the year Michael Bloomberg earned his electrical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins University. Another commodity that can’t be purchased is time — “the least thing we have of, ” in Ernest Hemingway’s memorable formulation.
This year Bloomberg has embarked on a great social experiment to see if money can buy a Democratic Party presidential nomination — and he’s already spent in excess of $400 million of his own money in that quest. First, though, he faces a hurdle that also belongs on the list of things money can’t buy: a winning debate performance.
But that’s exactly what the multi-billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor will need tonight as he steps on stage with his rivals in Nevada. How he performs could well determine the success or failure of his candidacy.
In just a few short weeks, Bloomberg has been able to boost his standing in the Democratic primary field with an unprecedented flood of spending, barraging the airways with ads and hiring staffers by the truckload in Super Tuesday states. But he has yet to meet his rivals face to face, nor been forced to answer tough questions about his record, his policies, and his peccadilloes. Instead, he has floated above the fray, relying on slickly produced and carefully crafted messages on television, radio, and social media. And while he will certainly have some well-honed talking points for the debate, Democratic voters will finally get to see the 78-year-old candidate in the flesh. Nevadans — and curious Democrats preparing to vote in a slew of other states in the next two weeks — will evaluate his demeanor, sincerity, and ability to interact with his critics and opponents in real time.
The stakes are enormously high. We’ve seen how a good debate performance in a primary can vault long-shot candidates from relative obscurity into legitimate contention – and vice versa. Rick Perry is still remembered for the “oops” moment that derailed his 2012 candidacy. Marco Rubio froze in the headlights when pressed by Chris Christie in 2016. Two week ago, by contrast, Amy Klobuchar’s boffo performance in New Hampshire catapulted her into the national conversation.
Will Bloomberg be Amy or Marco — or somewhere in-between? He enters the Nevada debate with a very high profile — courtesy, again, of the vast sums he’s spent thus far. He’s in third place in the RCP Average of national polls, second place in the RCP Betting Odds Average, and rising in some Super Tuesday state polls in places like Texas and Virginia. In other words, Bloomberg has purchased the high expectations he’ll carry into tonight.
In addition, Bloomberg will be toting other baggage onto the stage, including newly unearthed comments about his stop-and-frisk policy and well-documented allegations of appalling treatment of women at his company. Other likely targets include his views about minorities in the workplace and a demeaning remark about farmers.
The unusual mosaic of Bloomberg’s policy views means he’s likely to be attacked from all angles tonight. As mayor of New York, he was a veritable poster boy for the “nanny state” who not only wanted to get rid of guns, but also donuts and extra-large soft drinks. He’s big on climate change, but also on charter schools. The upshot is that he can also expect to be attacked from the right by Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, and from the left by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have already suggested that Bloomberg is using his billions to try to buy his way to the nomination.
So, the bad news for Bloomberg is the debate will be mostly about him. That could also be the good news. If Bloomberg can successfully defend his record and parry the attacks of his competitors, he will be able to continue building momentum for a potentially big night on Super Tuesday. If not, his support may erode, and no amount of money will be able to bring it back.