Bloomberg bets 2020 campaign on unprecedented strategy

Former New York City Mayor Michael BloombergMichael Rubens BloombergBloomberg unveils plan to combat climate change, cut emissions by 50 percent in 10 years Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals Vulnerable Democrats swing behind impeachment push MORE’s unconventional campaign strategy is panning out to be one of riskiest experiments in primary politics, testing the limits of personal wealth and name recognition. 

Bloomberg, who officially threw his hat in the Democratic primary ring last week, will not accept donations but will fund his own campaign, automatically disqualifying himself from the primary debates. 

The billionaire politician also says he plans to focus on the Super Tuesday states, and won’t compete in the crucial early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. 

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Operatives acknowledge Bloomberg’s game plan is risky, but are not dismissing his chances given that he is backed by his enormous personal wealth.

Bloomberg is worth over $50 billion, roughly, and has long championed liberal causes like combatting climate change. But he is also a former Republican, an affiliation that is expected to draw scrutiny during the primary.

The former mayor is hoping his history in politics and advocacy on issues such as gun control could be key in building a coalition of moderate and liberal voters.

That's a feat none of the existing candidates have been able to pull off so far in a race that has featured four leading contenders: former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Media organization fights Trump administration over Ukraine documents FOIA Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers MORE and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegButtigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals Buttigieg: I share a lot of the same values as people protesting my fundraisers MORE from the party's centrist wing, and Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Krystal Ball rips Warren's 'passive-aggressive' swipes at rivals MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats ask if they have reason to worry about UK result Buttigieg releases list of campaign bundlers Reject National Defense Authorization Act, save Yemen instead MORE (I-Vt.) from the progressive camp.

Whether Bloomberg can emerge as an alternative without spending time in early states or facing off on the debate stage remains in doubt.

“I think skipping the early states and skipping the debates could definitely be a problem,” veteran Democratic operative David Brock told The Hill. 

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“Both of those are opportunities to speak more directly to voters.” 

Other strategists, however, argue that Bloomberg’s absence from Iowa and New Hampshire may not be critical because of the states’ lack of voter diversity. 

“I have to say it'll probably piss people [off] in Iowa, New Hampshire, who are used to almost two years of slavish devotion,” a Democratic strategist told The Hill. “But is it a bad thing to move beyond those small, white, rural, under-representative early states?” 

Another former New York City mayor who launched a presidential bid, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiDOJ releases memos backing Trump immunity claims ahead of impeachment vote Giuliani to Trump after Ukraine trip: I got 'more than you can imagine' Conservative group hits White House with billboard ads: 'What is Trump hiding?' MORE, similarly skipped the early states for the most part to focus on Florida and the Super Tuesday states. The strategy ended badly, and he was forced to withdraw after finishing third in the Sunshine State and never even making it to Super Tuesday.

Despite being a billionaire and former mayor of New York, Bloomberg will similarly have to work to put his name out in a number of the Super Tuesday states where he is less known, such as those in the South. 

But unlike Giuliani, Bloomberg has deployed a $31 million ad buy across 98 local media markets, as well as on some national cable outlets — an unprecedented level of spending for a candidate who has just joined the race. 

Whether that can be enough remains to be seen. Warren attacked Bloomberg for using "bags and bags of money" to buy his way into the race, while Sanders declared himself "disgusted"  by the spending.

“His name ID his significantly less than Biden or Warren or Sanders in any of those states in the middle [of the country and] of the South,” Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist and principal at Group Gordon, said. “His money can help there but he doesn’t have the longstanding credibility."

In order to be competitive in the South, Bloomberg will need to perform well among African Americans, a potential hurdle given the scrutiny on his record as New York City mayor.

The billionaire this month apologized for his stop-and-frisk policing strategy during his tenure as mayor, saying he did not understand “the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities.”

There are also few signs that Bloomberg has built-in support from other critical Democratic constituencies such as Latinos. Sanders, for example, has avidly courted Latino voters since his 2016 campaign.

“The political reality is, I don't think he will do exceptionally well with Latino voters because I don't think they know who the heck he is," Moe Vela, a Democratic strategist and former adviser in the Clinton and Obama White Houses, told The Hill.

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“I’ve never seen Michael Bloomberg do anything to connect with the Latino community,” added Vela, who also serves on the board of the company TransparentBusines. “So all of the sudden you’re going to come into Texas and California and Super Tuesday states and you’re going to pump in a bunch of money.” 

Bloomberg’s absence on the debate stage could also prove to be a hurdle in his efforts to familiarize voters with his name. 

A number of candidates like Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Wisconsin: poll MORE (D-N.J.) and businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangAmerica's real 'freedom dividend': Hard work and pro-business policies The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker says he will not make December debate stage MORE are scrambling to ensure they get a spot on next month’s debate stage under toughened criteria.

But other strategists believe Bloomberg can afford not to take part in debates given that he is better known than some of the lower-polling candidates in the race.

“So many of them are fighting for oxygen that they are looking for a clip that can go viral, they're looking for a mention or maybe even a seat around the [morning news shows] table,” another Democratic strategist said. “He doesn’t have to do that. Michael Bloomberg doesn’t fight for oxygen.” 

Others say Bloomberg could even benefit from being absent from the primary debates, and avoiding the likely on-stage attacks from candidates such as Warren and Sanders.

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“Why would you want to stay in a place where your opponents could beat the devil out of you?” veteran New York strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked with Bloomberg, told The Hill. 

Despite the doubts about Bloomberg's strategy, few are willing to dismiss his chances in an unusually fluid race that has seen candidates such as Buttigieg vault from obscurity to top contender in the matter of months.

“Six months ago, there was a guy with a name no one could pronounce from a state with a low population, from a city that very few people go to to visit,” Sheinkopf said, referring to Buttigieg. “He is now one of the top four competitors in public polling.” 

“This is 2019,” he said. “Anything can happen.”