Virginia, you’re about to get your close-up.
And just like that, we’re writing about Michael Bloomberg.
Trust us, this doesn’t make us happy, either. We’d love to ignore national politics altogether but sometimes trouble comes knocking on the door, so here we are to answer it.
Mind you, we don’t sense much appetite among Democratic primary voters — or voters in general — for a septuagenarian billionaire. On the other hand, there may not be much appetite for any of the current candidates, either, which is what the former New York mayor is counting on.
He comes into our sights today because of the way he hopes to win the Democratic nomination: He wants Virginia — and all the other Super Tuesday states — to matter.
Bloomberg makes it clear he’s going to bypass the first four caucus and primary states altogether.
Iowa on Feb. 3? Pass.
New Hampshire on Feb. 11? Not going there.
Nevada on Feb. 22? Not going there, either.
South Carolina on Feb. 29? What part of “skip the first four states” don’t you understand?
Instead, Bloomberg intends to start his campaign in the 14 “Super Tuesday” states that vote on March 3 — mostly Southern ones, with California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota thrown in.
Bloomberg’s rationale: Those first four states expect — and require — a pretty intensive amount of one-on-one campaigning. He’s likely too late to do much there. He’s also counting on those four states producing a muddled outcome. Who’s on top in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada varies from poll to poll, but it’s definitely not Joe Biden. Meanwhile, every poll shows South Carolina is a lock for Biden. Every candidate in the field hopes that after those four states they’re the front-runner and the party is ready to coalesce around them.
Bloomberg is betting that won’t be the case at all. He’s betting that by then the surviving candidates have blown all their money — and won’t be able to afford the kind of advertising campaigns that Super Tuesday requires. Enter Bloomberg, who can come up with millions upon millions simply by checking his coat pocket. The Hill calls this “one of riskiest experiments in primary politics, testing the limits of personal wealth and name recognition.”
We’ll see. The history of candidates who try to start late — and try to skip the opening rounds — is littered with failures. But who’s to say that’s always going to be the case? Last time around, we elected a reality TV star with no political experience whatsoever — perhaps we’re in an era where all the rules are changing.
In any case, all of this interests us because Virginia is among those states that vote on Super Tuesday — and until now Virginia has never really made much of a difference on the primary schedule, particularly on the Democratic side.
Keep in mind that Virginia’s experience with presidential primaries is relatively brief in historical terms. Back in the 1980s, Southern Democrats — concerned over the leftward drift of the party — had the idea of grouping their primaries on a single, early date as a way to give a boost to a more centrist candidate. That didn’t work out the way they intended. In 1988, Jesse Jackson won the Virginia primary with 45 percent of the vote, far out-distancing Al Gore, who was second with 22 percent of the vote. Michael Dukakis went on to win the nomination and lose the election. Virginia didn’t have another Democratic presidential primary until 2004. By the time the primary schedule got around to Virginia that year, John Kerry was already well-established as the front-runner. Kerry swept the Super Tuesday states and his only significant opponent, John Edwards, dropped out the next day. Kerry won Virginia decisively — 51.5% to 26.6% — but even if he hadn’t, Kerry’s overall showing on Super Tuesday was so convincing it wouldn’t have mattered.
Likewise, the 2008 and 2016 Democratic presidential primaries in Virginia were afterthoughts in the national political conversation. Barack Obama won a landslide over Hillary Clinton in the former; Clinton won a landslide over Bernie Sanders in the latter. Neither time did Virginia get much attention from the candidates and neither time did the outcome make much of a difference, other than to fit within national patterns.
Virginia has made more of a difference on the Republican side — Marco Rubio made a valiant stand in Virginia in 2016 trying to blunt Donald Trump’s momentum but still came up short. It was in Salem that Rubio made his fatal “small hands” comment. If Rubio had won, well, Trump would have probably still won the nomination but Rubio would have likely emerged as his final competitor. Instead, it was in Virginia that Trump effectively eliminated one of his most serious rivals.
So what can Democrats expect from the Virginia primary in 2020? A lot of Bloomberg ads on television, if nothing else. And apparently of lot of Bloomberg himself, too. Bloomberg chose Virginia as the place to make his first official campaign appearance. He tweeted last week that “I’m kicking off my presidential campaign in Norfolk today because southwestern Virginia proves that — with the right candidate — we can turn areas from red to blue.” Bloomberg has a few things to learn — Virginia geography among them — but there is a certain method to his madness. “No one has done more to educate and mobilize voters in Virginia than Michael Bloomberg,” former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told The Washington Post. “I can’t think of another state where he should start because he’s invested here. . . . He’s got all this data, clearly he knows who all the energized voters are on the issues of gun control and climate change.” It’s true that Bloomberg’s money has helped Democratic candidates for the General Assembly — although whether that means Democratic voters like Bloomberg himself is a different matter.
In any case, the point is the same: Bloomberg will make Virginia (and a whole bunch of other states) matter in a way that we haven’t before. There are lots of scenarios for how 2020 will play out. All we know is that someone will win in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — maybe the same candidate, maybe different ones — but that candidate won’t be Michael Bloomberg. Come March 3, whether the field is still split or not, people will be looking to Virginia — and the other Super Tuesday states — to see whether Bloomberg will be a factor or not. Perhaps by then he’ll even know that Norfolk isn’t in Southwest Virginia.