The Bloomberg campaign hits Caucus Weekend

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's presidential campaign sought to recruit supporters at the annual legislative conference organized by the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators.

Mike Bloomberg 2020 sign in Albany

Mike Bloomberg 2020 sign in Albany Zach Williams

More than $300 million in campaign spending has bought former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a lot of advantages in the Democratic Party presidential primary. Television ads are running in dozens of states across the country. Hundreds of staff are devoted to causes as varied as meme creation and the crafting of a political strategy targeting states that vote in March and April rather than the early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that other candidates have focused on. 

Money has also allowed the Bloomberg campaign to stump for support in places his rivals don’t even know about. This includes the opening of a campaign office across the street from the Renaissance Hotel in Albany. It is no accident that a “Mike Bloomberg 2020” sign is framed within the windows of the hotel bar, where elected officials, activists and other members of the state’s political elite gathered for drinks on Saturday after a day of workshops at the annual legislative conference organized by the New York State Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. 

“We have a lot of people who have done work in the city and state before,” Jennifer Blatus, a spokeswoman for the Bloomberg campaign, said of the conference, known as Caucus Weekend. “So it just seemed like a logical event to reach out to potential voters.”

The campaign identified the conference weeks ago as an opportunity to further its efforts to appeal to a black community alienated by Bloomberg’s past support of controversial NYPD policies like stop-and-frisk. The Albany office was opened just in time for the conference. Campaign staffers gave away t-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons to as many attendees as they could. Elected officials who have already endorsed Bloomberg sought to persuade colleagues who have not. With other presidential campaigns focused on upcoming contests like Nevada and South Carolina, the Bloomberg campaign was seemingly alone in its efforts to appeal to some of the most powerful elected officials in the state more than two months before the April 28 New York presidential primary.

“He knew where the lion's share of the politicos in the black and brown community and activists were going to be on one weekend,” said Democratic political consultant Lupe Todd-Medina. “Everybody loves a piece of tchotchke. Everybody likes t-shirts. So I didn't see anybody turning them away.”

In recent weeks, the Bloomberg campaign has touted endorsements from black elected officials like Rep. Gregory Meeks of Queens, the borough’s party chairman who has taken a leading role in efforts to appeal to black voters, as well as Assemblyman Clyde Vanel and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. “As far as endorsements and elite-level support, he's doing incredibly well,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “Whether or not those elite leaders can convince their constituents remains to be seen.” The case they are aiming to make is simple – whatever their qualms with Bloomberg’s record as mayor, his wealth and politically moderate record make him the most electable candidate in the Democratic field.

Elected officials like Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan also sought to whip up support for Bloomberg at the conference, including at a Saturday reception hosted by state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins “I am always talking to people at these events,” Bellone told City & State in an interview. State legislators and local officials were among the people at the conference who Bellone said were his top targets to win over to the Bloomberg campaign. 

Support from Bellone and state Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Long Island – who have both called for the state Legislature to amend newly-implemented limits on cash bail – highlight how supporting Bloomberg could help moderate Democrats’ own political interests. “Mike Bloomberg puts us in the best position to win a whole, particularly in the suburbs,” Bellone said. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner following the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. His call to eliminate cash bail and his outspoken support for far-left ideas like single-payer health care have made some Democrats nervous that their own chances could be undermined if he becomes the Democratic nominee. By endorsing Bloomberg, moderates would be better able to distance themselves from the left wing of the party as they seek to win over swing voters who might otherwise vote for a Republican candidate.

While black voters would disproportionately benefit from the elimination of cash bail, a desire to defeat Trump may determine who some vote for in the Democratic primaries. “Black voters are strategic voters for sure,” Greer said. “The single issue seems to be to get Trump out of office for the vast majority.” 

Recent polling shows Bloomberg making progress among black voters. A national Quinnipiac poll on Feb. 10 showed Bloomberg in second place among black voters, with Biden in first place. The poll also showed Bloomberg as having a 9-point edge over Trump – the largest margin of the Democratic field. 

The upcoming primary in South Carolina will be the first contest in which black voters are a significant part of the electorate. While Bloomberg has not actively campaigned in the state because of his late entrance into the race, there is the potential that he could increase his standing among voters even if he only wins a percentage point or two of the vote total as a write-in candidate. If that happens, it would be a warning sign for the rest of the Democratic field, according to Greer. “My hypothesis is that Biden will underperform in South Carolina,” she said. “(Tom) Steyer, who's been putting a lot of money just in South Carolina, will overperform temporarily and then possibly go away. And that will open up a pathway for Bloomberg.”

Bloomberg’s campaign strategy hinges on doing well on Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states vote, including delegate-rich states like California and Texas. If he performs well that day, then Bloomberg could conceivably emerge as the Democratic frontrunner. That is when all the attention that he has given to states like New York can be used to their greatest effect. Unlike other candidates, Bloomberg’s wealth guarantees that his campaign can grow no matter what happens. 

By the end of the month, his campaign hopes to open its 15th campaign office in New York state. Additional endorsements from elected officials are also likely to be announced, and the campaign has continued efforts at the national level to publicize its outreach efforts to the black community. With a vast national network of contacts and good will built up through decades of giving through Bloomberg Philanthropies‎, his wealth also gives him political leverage and name recognition that few candidates can ever match. 

It remains to be seen whether or not these advantages will translate into enough votes for Bloomberg to win the Democratic nomination. But supporters at Caucus Weekend in Albany are feeling that the political winds are blowing in his direction. Over the course of three days and nights in Albany, they made sure to say that to anyone who would listen. “The case I made was basically that there's nobody in a stronger position to actually win this election who has the resources to beat Donald Trump,” Bellone said.