Does Michael Bloomberg “Radiate Electability”?
One political scientist says yes. A bunch of others say wait, what?
A piece in Newsweek had political science twitter reacting the last couple of days. The headline read: Michael Bloomberg Could ‘Immediately Become a Heavyweight’ in 2020 Race, Says Political Scientist: ‘He Radiates Electability’
The passage that formed the basis of the short piece was as follows:
“As a former business magnate and mayor of New York City, Bloomberg has the two qualities essential to enter the presidential race at this late stage: money and name recognition,” Dr. Thomas Gift, a political scientist at University College London, told Newsweek.
“For that reason, I think Bloomberg can immediately become a heavyweight in the Democratic primaries. Beyond the attention he’d garner with his announcement, there’s plenty of space for Bloomberg to position himself as a moderate voice, especially with Joe Biden’s candidacy stuck in neutral.”
“Unlike Elizabeth Warren, he also radiates electability, which is important to many Democrats who, above all else, prioritize beating Trump in the 2020 election,” Gift said.
A lot of reaction was that it was necessary to go to the UK to find a political scientist to make such a comment, however it should be noted that Gift’s Ph.D. is from Duke and, as best I can tell, is American. He does a lot of cable news commentary, which I presume is how Newsweek found him. One can find more info on him at his personal home page.
I cannot comment on Gift’s broader scholarship, but would note that his quote sounds more like someone trying to excite a reporter than it is a fully thought out position. Indeed, I would say he is acting wholly as a pundit here, rather than in a way that reflects political science.
Gift responded to some of the criticism on Twitter:
The problem is, that isn’t what he said. Another problem is that this defense assumes a very crude understanding of the electorate that sees it as nothing more than a distribution of ideological preferences and therefore that the more moderate candidate would win. Such assertions make terrible assumptions about things like voter turnout.
I agree when he says “Bloomberg has the two qualities essential to enter the presidential race at this late stage: money and name recognition” insofar as the only ways to make any headway at all at this point in an ongoing contest is to have people already have some idea of who you are and to not have to raise a lot of money. (Indeed, as James Joyner’s post today notes, Bloomberg is polling at 4%, which is better than an number of other candidates. But let me stress that 4% isn’t a lot of support).
Entering the race and getting press is one thing. Disrupting an already crowded field in a way that makes one competitive is wholly another. If Gift had to stuck to that, all well and good, although I think he should have noted the difficulties Bloomberg will face gaining anything other than token traction.
The part that was over the top was, “he also radiates electability.”
First, “electability” is a vague term and often is only confirmed in a post hoc way. That is, we only ever really know if a candidate was electable once said candidate has been elected. It is far more a pundit term than a political science one.
Second, he is engaging in somewhat lazy assumptions that the American electorate is normally distributed on a bell curve and so the most moderate candidate should win, because the more moderate candidate theoretically appeals to more voters than does the less moderate candidate. This ignores a lot of things, not the least of which is that certain issues, like abortion, often override the other issues.
Gift defends himself as follows:
This is true. He makes no claims about how Bloomberg’s chance in the primary. But, making claims about electability in the general election just because Bloomberg has name recognition, can self-fund, and is allegedly a “moderate” is sloppy analysis at best.
First, name recognition can only take you so far. Rudy Giuliani is a good example of a case in which name recognition alone was nowhere near enough.
Second, money alone is not enough. See, e.g., Ross Perot and Steve Forbes (or, more recently, Tom Steyer).
Third, “moderate” is doing a lot of work here in a Rorschach test kind of way. Most people, Gift included, likely do not have any clear idea as to what Bloomberg believes, nor what constituency he actually has. As noted above, what about key polarizing issues that might undercut his alleged moderateness?
In many ways this all sounds like a recurring fantasy in American punditry that a moderate business type would emerge and save us all from the normal politicians.
I will note that some of my analysis here sounds like what I said about Trump in 2015–but the part I missed about Trump was that he actually had a large constituency within the GOP that allowed him to be nominated, and once nominated was able to capitalize on the forces of our binary party system and the exigencies of the Electoral College. He was ultimately “electable” because he won the EC, but he never radiated electability even on election night.
But to say that Bloomberg “radiates electability” in a context in which he almost certainly has no pathway through to his own party’s nomination process is what a pundit who wants press attention says, not what should pass as political science.
A more reasonable assessment, largely already noted above, is as follows. A person like Bloomberg, whose name is widely known for multiple reasons and who has massive amounts of money, can make a media splash by entering the race at this stage. Given the clearly fragmented Democratic vote at the moment (there are over a dozen contenders), it should not be surprising that a high name recognition individual might garner some initial support. He does potentially appeal to the moderate lane in the current group of candidates, and especially to disaffected Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who may be considering voting in the Democratic primary this cycle because of their dislike of Trump.
None of that, however, is very sexy from a soundbite POV, but it radiates (if I may use the term) a media story line. I will be extremely surprised if Bloomberg can get any traction in the Democratic contest.
I think, too, that Gift should have known better than to conflate a hypothetical general election contest and primary season–especially since the Democratic electorate is focused on “electability.” If Bloomberg really did radiate electability, he would be polling better than 4% with Democrats.