Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg walks through a crowd of supporters at a rally at Central Machine Works in East Austin. Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune
Eric Graves isn’t your typical voter. He has cast ballots for Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and, most recently, Donald Trump. He said party isn’t as important to him as the candidate, and heading into 2020, he has a new mantra: Bloomberg or bust.
Graves, a 69-year-old insurance agent, stood toward the back of a Michael Bloomberg event at an East Austin brewery earlier this month, among a crowd that skewed elderly and white. Counting down the minutes until he was able to shake hands with the Democratic candidate, Graves said the political party had lost its way.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders? “So far left.” Joe Biden? “He’s lost whatever he had” during the Obama era.” Pete Buttigieg? “Doesn’t have the track record.”
In Bloomberg, he sees a winning formula. “Successful businessman, a politician and he’s funding his whole thing himself,” Graves said. “He’s not asking anybody to do anything but allow him to help America. That’s what we need.”
Graves’ second choice? Trump.
Bloomberg was in Austin as part of an unconventional zag-while-they-zig electoral strategy. He’s skipping the traditional early states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — in favor of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday ones, which include Texas.
But to surpass expectations here, he’ll need to win over masses of voters with traits like Graves — disillusioned Republicans, pragmatic Democrats or something in between. The New York billionaire hopes to make inroads as one of the few presidential contenders to invest in Texas this early in the year.
And he is really investing. Bloomberg has built an unmatched ground game throughout the state, opening a Texas headquarters and 16 field offices, along with hiring a state director and three deputy state directors. Last week, Bloomberg announced plans to amass nearly 150 Texas staffers by the end of the month, and his campaign said it was “hiring daily.” Plus, he’s spending millions of his own dollars on television ads in media markets across the state.
It’s a risky bet made by an underdog with almost limitless resources — someone who’s polling in the single digits yet willing to “spend what’s needed” to stay competitive.
His unconventional approach was on full display during a daylong swing through Texas earlier this month that included public stops in San Antonio, Austin and Dallas. He acknowledged the four early primary states but downplayed their importance, arguing that investing time and resources in Texas’ 254 counties — a nod to the strategy popularized by Beto O’Rourke in 2018 — would give him an electoral advantage in the fall.
“This is the road to November, and it’s the road to victory and it’s starting right here,” Bloomberg said in Austin to raucous applause.
By past standards, Bloomberg’s strategy for the White House should be impossible. In addition to his late start, the septuagenarian presidential candidate has joined what was once one of the most diverse Democratic fields, which has been defined, in part, by an aversion to billionaires.
But to the people showing up to his rallies, that unconventionality is part of the appeal.
Among the Austin crowd: a former O’Rourke supporter, a woman who’s known of the former mayor for nearly 25 years and a man who listed Bloomberg in his top five favorite candidates — alongside progressives like Sanders and Warren.
“He doesn’t come across as an entitled person,” said Sheila Fischthal, a retiree and former New Yorker. “He built himself up, and I think he wants the same thing for all Americans.
“He’s willing to get in and roll up his sleeves and do the work and be the leader we so desperately need right now,” she said. She sported a Bloomberg pin on her jacket and clutched his book along with one of his campaign signs.
After a community event and lunch in San Antonio, Bloomberg’s campaign bus rolled up a dirt road in Austin, blaring Alicia Keys’ “New York.” He was introduced by Judy Sheindlin, better known for her TV name: Judge Judy. He discussed how O’Rourke’s narrow loss in the 2018 U.S. Senate race proved a Democrat could win Texas.
“Unlike New Yorkers, Texans have a Democratic cry: Texas is the biggest [battleground] state,” Bloomberg said. “I agree, and I’m fighting to win your 38 electoral votes.”
Since entering the race late in November, Bloomberg has trailed the four front-runners but consistently polled in the high single digits, ahead of candidates who have been in the race for months longer. But the question remains whether he can climb higher — or whether, even with all his spending and infrastructure, he’ll fade when all eyes are on the early states he’s skipping.
In most election cycles, nominating contests were all but decided after the first four early states. (Al Gore tested the “skip the early states” strategy, which didn’t work in 1988. Bloomberg’s mayoral predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, also eschewed Iowa and New Hampshire during his short-lived presidential run in 2008.)
“For the most part, if they aren’t in the early states, they can’t win,” said Dave Peterson, a Whitaker-Lindgren faculty fellow in political science at Iowa State University. “Bloomberg has to bank on the first four states being a muddled mess and that different candidates win each of those states, so that there isn’t a clear leader going into Super Tuesday.”
But during a daylong swing through Texas, Bloomberg made clear that he believes his White House bid, which might’ve first been thought of as a quixotic campaign, could grow into a juggernaut.
“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” Bloomberg said. He spoke for nearly 14 minutes before indulging a few photographs and doing a sit-down television interview with Sheindlin.
“I’m traveling the country, trying to take my message directly to voters, and it’s great to be here in Austin, and thank you for coming out and for spending part of your weekend with me,” he said.
And in spite of not having a national platform in the form of the Democratic debates, his money has clearly caught the attention of his rivals. Many Democrats, including Warren and Julián Castro, were openly irritated that Bloomberg has essentially bought his way into the race. According to The New York Times, Trump was reportedly irked by Bloomberg’s suggestion he might spend $1 billion of his own fortune to help defeat the president, even if he’s is not the Democratic nominee.
But there’s also a question of whether he’s the best candidate to energize an increasingly diverse electorate and party whose most recent White House wins were led by a strong turning among people of color for a black nominee. In 2018, O’Rourke was elevated, in part, by a coalition of younger voters who turned out to the polls. Support among young voters and voters of color has been one of the biggest question marks surrounding Bloomberg’s run, experts say.
“A Bloomberg voter is likely to be older, wants to beat Trump and is concerned primarily about electability,” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of political communications at Southern Methodist University.
“Primary voters are highly motivated and they pay attention, and he’s trying to get people who have been shopping for a while to think about a new product. That’s difficult,” she said.
And there are clearly some in the Democratic electorate who are skeptical of an ultra-rich candidate self-funding his campaign.
“I don’t know why anyone would run that way,” Lucas Diercouff, a former combat medic and Bernie Sanders supporter at the Austin event, said of Bloomberg’s electoral strategy. “I’m not taking him as seriously” as the other Democrats.
“I am going to help turn Texas blue,” says Democratic presidential nominee Mike Bloomberg. Steve Matzker for The Texas Tribune
It’s too early to know how Bloomberg has fared in Texas in particular. He wasn’t mentioned in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll from early November, which found Biden leading with support of 23% of voters. Warren followed with 18%, and O’Rourke, who has since dropped out of the race, placed third, at 14%. Just 5% of Texas voters said they didn’t know whom they would support.
“I think he plays by his own rules,” said Kim West, a former O’Rourke supporter who attended Bloomberg’s Austin event as she weighs the Democratic field. “He’s a really clever guy and I’m sure the people working with him are as well, but it’s just never been done that way.”
Bloomberg, meanwhile, has expressed a clear-eyed understanding that he has his work cut out for him in the state.
Asked by a reporter whether he’s received an endorsement from any Texas official, he dodged the question and said his campaign would put out a full endorsement list “eventually.” He then talked broadly about the support he’s accumulated nationally, alongside Sheindlin’s support. (Bloomberg hasn’t publicly announced the endorsement of any Texas elected officials.)
But if it’s any consolation to the long-shot candidate, some of his biggest supporters haven’t lost hope. Asked before the event if he thought Bloomberg had a shot at winning, Graves gave a resounding “yes.”
“I don’t think anybody is going to clearly separate themselves from the masses in the first four states,” he said.
Graves smiled for a photo with Bloomberg after the candidate spoke and said that after hearing from him in person, he was looking forward to following him around the state.
“After this, I might just go with him to Waco,” Graves said, a nod to the next stop on Bloomberg’s bus tour.
Disclosure: Southern Methodist and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.