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Longshot Democrats’ Victory Formula: Cash + Luck

Jonathan Bernstein

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The  five candidates with a reasonable shot at the Democratic presidential nomination — former Vice President Joe Biden, ex-Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — will debate Tuesday night in Des Moines. Tom Steyer, the California hedge-fund billionaire, will join then, and he and several other candidates are still running even though the others didn’t qualify for the debate. I don’t think any of them have a plausible chance of being nominated, but then again I didn’t think Donald Trump had a chance at winning the Republican nomination in 2016. So it’s worth assessing the strengths and weaknesses of at least some of them.

Michael Bloomberg

Assets: Money, of course. The immense personal wealth of the former New York City mayor and founder of Bloomberg LP, parent company of Bloomberg Opinion, has financed a flood of ads since he jumped into the race in November that has already brought him to fifth place in the national polls. He also picked up endorsements from some mayors, demonstrating that he has some support from party actors. Like two other former mayors, Senator Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey, who dropped out of the race on Monday, and (to a lesser extent) Buttigieg, Bloomberg has governing experience, and is broadly within the mainstream of the party. 

Liabilities: He already has higher unfavorable ratings than most of the candidates, and more Democrats saying they would be disappointed if he were to be nominated. He jumped in late and is skipping the first four contests of the primary season next month and isn’t qualifying for debates because he’s not taking campaign contributions — the invitations so far have depended in part on having a large number of donors.(1)So throughout January and February, he will be challenged to stay prominent in press coverage that is likely to focus on debates and on Iowa, New Hamsphire, Nevada and South Carolina. Beyond the mayors, there’s little sign of support from party actors. And self-financed campaign funding has been found to be less effective than donated money.

How he might win: He’ll have a chance if the nomination remains wide open by the time he starts competing in primaries in March. Even if that happens and even if he stays in the news in the meantime, he would still need to overcome resistance from party groups that oppose him. Perhaps outspending everyone can do that, but that’s never been enough before. 

Tom Steyer

Assets: See Bloomberg, only less so and without any governing experience. At least he’s spending in the early states. That put him in the recent debates.

Liabilities: His polling numbers are dismal except in Nevada and South Carolina, the two states where he’s been spending heavily without opposition. He has only a single endorsement that counts toward the tally kept by FiveThirtyEight.  Democrats have no history of nominating presidential candidates without experience in public office, and only Jesse Jackson came even remotely close, in 1988 — and Steyer is no Jackson.(2) 

How he might win: Self-financed campaign spending turned out to be more effective in 2016 than it had been in previous election cycles, and Steyer would need that to remain true this time around. The early contests would also have to remain as essential as ever for him to outlast the much wealthier Bloomberg. It’s hard to imagine those two factors coming together for him.

Andrew Yang

Assets: He’s been in the debates so far, and his overall polling numbers aren’t bad — he’s in sixth place nationally right now. Few Democrats dislike this tech entrepreneur who has made advocacy of a universal basic income his signature issue. He has enthusiastic supporters, including in Iowa. His fundraising is strong.

Liabilities: He failed to qualify for the January debate, and that’s going to make it hard for him to generate the amount of attention he’d need to find new support. He has no endorsements at all in the FiveThirtyEight tally and no experience in public office.  

How he might win: Yang was always facing severe obstacles, but missing out on the last debate before the voting starts probably takes away the possibility that he could get enough attention to become a serious contender. Even more than Steyer, he’d need an almost miraculous run of good luck.

The Others

Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii has polled higher than 1% at times, but she has also drawn some of the most ardent opposition. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and late entrant Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, look like contenders on paper, but haven’t caught on. Former Representative John Delaney of Maryland has spent plenty of time in Iowa but has little to show for it.

Overall? I’ll be surprised if someone other than Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders or Warren wins the nomination. I’ll be comfortable keeping my focus on them. But if there’s one good lesson from 2016, it’s to be careful about ruling things out.  

1. Dave Hopkins on Democrats and diversity.

2. Dan Drezner is trying to figure out Trump’s foreign policy. 

3. Rob Johns and Ann-Kristin Kölln at the Monkey Cage on voters and perceived extremists.

4. Heather Hurlburt on trade, security, the U.S. and Europe.

5. Bloomberg’s Sahil Kapur on Democratic activists trying to beat Joe Biden.

6. Geoffrey Skelley on the slowish pace of endorsements in the Democratic nomination contest.

7. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on guns and democracy in Virginia.

8. And Jonathan Chait on Trump’s latest health care whopper.

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(1) There's a loophole: Anyone who purchases merchandise from the campaign counts as a donor. It's possible Bloomberg could use that to reach the donor qualifications, but it's not clear he'll even try.

(2) Republicans had not nominated any inexperienced candidate before Trump, but have had several contenders - Pat Robertson, Steve Forbes, Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and more - who have been taken pretty seriously despite not having conventional credentials. Democrats really only have Jackson as an example.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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