- Judging by past performances and messaging from rival campaigns this week, Bloomberg will likely tout his executive experience and try to appear calm when under attack.
- Bloomberg’s late entrance to the debate stage is unprecedented in American politics, and could make him the center of attention, according to a leading debate scholar.
- After months of riding on polished TV ads, Bloomberg will be exposed in the open for rival campaigns ready to take him down a peg.
- For those expecting fireworks, televised debate norms and the number of candidates may lead to disappointment, according to a longtime presidential campaign adviser.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Most of Michael Bloomberg’s campaign ads only show the candidate for the final few seconds.
But tonight in Las Vegas, the billionaire Democratic presidential hopeful and former New York City mayor will be under the lights and on his own for all to see.
Bloomberg’s late entrance to the televised debate stage — the ninth of this cycle, for those keeping score — is rather unprecedented in the history of American politics, according to Mitchell S. McKinney, a communications professor and director of the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute.
“The Bloomberg inclusion is an interesting twist — something that’s novel — to insert someone at this stage, after voting has started” said McKinnney, who worked with the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1992 to establish the town hall format and has been studying televised debates post-1960 for decades.
Bloomberg’s competitors in the Democratic Presidential Primary have intensified their scrutiny over the 78-year-old businessman’s past comments and colossal ad spending this week, raising tensions ahead of NBC News and MSNBC’s broadcast at 9 p.m. EST.
With Bloomberg making a late foray into the arena, professor McKinney said he expects Bloomberg to be the center of incoming attacks from candidates who have already dedicated months to campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Bloomberg was not on the ballot (nor will he be in the next states to vote, Nevada and South Carolina).
Telegraphed attacks vs. live fireworks
Coming out of President’s Day weekend, Bloomberg’s fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls began sharpening their critiques against the billionaire, who has already spent more on his primary campaign than then-President Barack Obama did on his entire 2012 reelection bid.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren called Sanders an “egomaniac billionaire” in a tweet Tuesday.
In response to a voter question at the Durango Hills Community Center in Las Vegas, former South Bend, Ind. mayor Pete Buttigieg described Bloomberg as “a billionaire who thinks that you can just … buy your way onto television and win that way,” according to CNN’s DJ Judd.
On Sunday, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar called out Bloomberg for having yet to appear on any of the major network Sunday shows to face tough questions, while former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have also taken aim at Bloomberg in recent days.
McKinney described these maneuvers as campaigns “telegraphing” their attacks, which could end up being relayed by the moderators in the form of pointed questions thrown at Bloomberg.
Given his rise in the national polls — sitting in third behind Sanders and Biden in the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll — McKinney said the preamble should lead to something happening on stage.
“First out of the gate, he’s not going to be ignored,” McKinney said. “I think he’s going to get a lot of attention.”
However, longtime Republican presidential campaign adviser John Weaver was quick to throw some cold water over any expectations that Bloomberg’s debut will spark any sort of slugfest.
“To think that there’s gonna be some high stakes moment, like high noon or something — not gonna happen,” he quipped.
“Face-to-face confrontations are really difficult to pull off and do well … the candidates don’t like to do them, they’re not very good at them, the debate often doesn’t go the way that you think it’s gonna go tactically,” Weaver said.
McKinney agreed, noting that through most of the debates he’s studied through the past half century, candidate attacks tend to be harsher in ads and on the campaign trail than they can get in-person.
“That’s the beauty of these debates,” McKinney said, “when these candidates meet face-to-face, how do they respond to one another?”
The Bloomberg debate playbook
When running for mayor in 2001, 2005 and 2009, Bloomberg participated in one-on-one general election debates hosted by local New York City stations.
On each occasion, he debated a Democratic challenger — twice as a Republican before switching his party affiliation to independent in 2007 — and exhibited similar tactics each time.
Central to Bloomberg’s mayoral pitch was a refrain maintained in his presidential run: executive experience.
Right off the bat in his first mayoral debate in 2001, Bloomberg touted his business record and “experience managing a large organization … leading a large number of people … setting large budgets,” arguing his opponent, then-NYC Public Advocate Mark J. Green, would be underprepared for the job of mayor in comparison.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Bloomberg teased a similar framework for how he would distinguish himself on the debate stage in Las Vegas, telling the wire service of his opponents,”None of them would know how to run a big organization.”
Just as Bloomberg downplayed Green’s experience running a city agency in 2001, he took a nock at former Mayor Pete in his chat with Reuters.
“He is the mayor of a town,” Bloomberg said. “Let’s not get too carried away.”
Throughout the three hours of his previous debates, Bloomberg tends to parry criticism with a mix of snark and aloofness before pivoting to a bullet point rebuttal.
For McKinney, whether Bloomberg keeps his cool under seige from multiple directions will be an important factor, particularly if rivals relish in their first chance to confront him in the flesh.
“Bloomberg, if his opponents are really going after him knives out, he may be able to take a position of above the fray, presidential, I’m not going to engage in this pettiness,” the Missouri professor said. “And he might then be able to come out above it all.”
Yet for a seasoned campaign hand like Weaver, once the lights are on, all of the machinations and strategy leading into the debate get boiled down into a much more primal urge for the candidates to simply survive the night.
“You know how you win a debate? Be thine own self true,” Weaver said. “You can over-prep some of these people, so this will sort itself out. The first debate with Mike, I know everybody wants to make it like the clock’s ticking and it’s a dusty desert street, and the gunslinger is gonna walk out and they’re gonna, you know — it’s not happening. Okay? It’s not happening.”
Unless, he added, someone trips up.
“The impact from the debate will be minimal unless somebody makes a mistake,” Weaver said. “Not because somebody did a knockout, but because some candidate screwed up.”