Update 415: Something Completely Different:
Bloomberg on Stage, Foil or Proxy for Trump?
On the eve of the Nevada caucuses, the Democratic presidential process remains fluid, and it may be more so come Sunday, with Iowa and New Hampshire having less predictive value than usual for several reasons.
One of those reasons is the entry in the polls, on the stage, and on the ballot starting Super Tuesday, of former New York Mayor Bloomberg. Below, we assess his performance and that of his primary rivals at Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas with a view to economic policy issues.
Good weekends all…
Coming on the heels of close contests in both New Hampshire and Iowa, the Democratic presidential primary is heating up. Sen. Bernie Sanders won the most votes in both states and is the favorite in the Nevada caucuses. But this nomination is far from decided, and those remaining aren’t laying down their weapons quite yet.
Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas was the most explosive so far. The candidates took aim at the frontrunners in a bid to break through at last. We explore the performance on economic policy issues and the impact on the prospects of the top six candidates, in order of their latest Nevada polling averages, per FiveThirtyEight at the time of writing. While Mayor Bloomberg will not appear on the caucus ballot, some Nevada polls still included him.
Senator Bernie Sanders (26.8 percent)
On Wednesday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders emphasized his support for raising the minimum wage, enacting universal health care, lowering drug prices, and tempering economic inequality. He attacked Mayor Bloomberg, a foil for Sanders to position himself as working class champion. When asked about his remark that “billionaires should not exist,” Sanders declared it was immoral that Bloomberg held more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. Bloomberg called Sanders’ plan to have workers on corporate boards “communism.” Sanders dismissed it as a cheap shot and criticized Bloomberg for claiming that he “earned” his billions of dollars when Bloomberg’s employees contributed to generating that wealth.
Prior to the debate, Sanders held a strong lead with Nevada voters. His performance, which was as consistent on economic issues in the debates as anyone in the field, probably secured his frontrunner status for the Nevada caucuses.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg (15.6 percent)
During the debate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg went on the offensive. Many of his attacks targeted frontrunner Sen. Sanders. He criticized Sanders’ pay-fors for Medicare for All and other programs, stating “[Sanders] only explained $25 trillion worth of revenue, which means that the hole in there is bigger than the size of the entire economy of the United States.” Buttigieg offered his “Medicare for All who want it” plan that adds a public option to the current system. Sen. Warren attacked his plan, saying that while Buttigieg’s plan does cap premiums, it doesn’t cover deductibles, co-pays, and uncovered medical expenses—something that Warren and Sanders both address in their plans.
Buttigieg pulled out a near-victory in Iowa (nabbing more state equivalent delegates than anyone else) and came in second place in New Hampshire. Nevada will test the Mayor’s momentum and viability with minority voters, a group with which he has not polled well.
Vice President Joe Biden (15 percent)
After a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, this debate was critical for Vice President Joe Biden. He too attacked Mayor Bloomberg, highlighting Bloomberg’s criticism of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and his refusal to endorse Barack Obama in 2008. Biden framed his economic policies as “rewarding work, not just wealth.” Biden laid out a tax plan which would:
- Raise the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent
- Establish a minimum corporate tax of 15 percent
- Tax capital gains at the same rate as regular income for those making at least $1 million
With Sen. Sanders outpacing the other candidates in Nevada polling, Biden can hope for second place. But his focus remains on South Carolina, and the economic policy message is not crisp and clear. Another weak showing for Biden this weekend could further threaten his South Carolina firewall.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (12.6 percent)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren commanded the immediate attention of the room on Wednesday, effectively highlighting issues of workplace sexual harassment, economic inequality, universal health care, and equal access to capital.
In her opening statement, Warren lambasted Mayor Bloomberg as just another “arrogant billionaire” working against the interests of working families. She criticized Sen. Klobuchar’s and Mayor Buttigieg’s health care proposals as woefully insufficient. In her stand-out moment, Warren repeatedly pressured Bloomberg to release sexual harassment claimants from non-disclosure agreements signed with his company.
Warren saw middling results from the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But since her recent debate performance, she had raised over $5 million and a few eyebrows; she may yet surprise tomorrow.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (10.6 percent)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar performed exceedingly well in the New Hampshire debate earlier this month, but Wednesday night was a different story. Mayor Buttigieg questioned her judgment and general knowledge of issues, especially in foreign affairs. Sen. Warren called Klobuchar’s main health care policy inadequate, deriding it as “two paragraphs on her website.” Klobuchar took objection to that and characterized her health care plan as an extension of the ACA with a public option.
Klobuchar’s momentum may have slowed. Polling in Nevada shows her at a distinct disadvantage, even compared to the other moderates, Buttigieg and Vice President Biden. This debate did little to help the Minnesota Senator, but she is likely to continue campaigning through Super Tuesday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg (8.7 percent)
This was Mayor Bloomberg’s first Democratic primary debate since entering the race last November, and he found himself playing defense most of the night. Bloomberg offered little in terms of an economic agenda but stated his support for expanding the ACA to include a public option and his opposition to President Trump’s tariffs. Beyond the scant policy details, Bloomberg defended capitalism more broadly and argued that a progressive candidate like Sens. Sanders or Warren would lead to Democratic defeat in November.
Even though he received most of the attention Wednesday night, Bloomberg won’t appear on a ballot until Super Tuesday. He has made significant polling gains this month in Super Tuesday states and is tied for first in Virginia with Sanders. But his lackluster introduction to voters in Las Vegas may cut into these gains. The true strength of Bloomberg’s candidacy will become apparent on March 3rd when primary voters have their first opportunity to cast a ballot for him in 14 states.
Nevada is the first contest where the Democratic candidates are competing for the votes of a majority-minority electorate. Tomorrow’s results will provide the best indication yet of how the candidates will fare with the more diverse Super Tuesday electorate. With Sen. Warren arguably having the strongest performance at the debate, she may be in the best position to carry momentum into the caucuses. We will have to wait a couple of weeks to see if Bloomberg’s entrance upends the race.