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.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    I’m afraid that Bloomberg will be forever linked with his Ban-the-Big-Gulp efforts. I suspect that he will generate the same reaction that Hillary Clinton did: the image of a finger-wagging scold absolutely certain he/she is better than anyone else.

    Also, the damn arrogance of Bloomberg jumping in at the last minute and expecting to take over isn’t going to go down well.

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  2. wr says:

    Unlike Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg has a penis.

    Not sure why this esteemed political scientist didn’t just say it right out.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Does Michael Bloomberg “Radiate Electability”?

    Sure he does, to a well off late ’90s early ’00s middle aged white Republican male with a fair amount of racial biases (stopping short of KKK territory) and a bit of an authoritarian streak who still believes all that trickle down isn’t urine.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Safe punditry involves driving forward while using only the rear-view mirror. They know what’s been: wealthy, old, white men do have a record of reaching the White House that’s pretty darned impressive. If only he’d been a war hero, too.

    Yes, that’s what has been. Is it what is yet to be? Answering that question is for bolder pundits. The odds of being right are slimmer, but when right the payoff is more impressive.

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  5. DrDaveT says:

    I’m pretty sure that Bloomberg does radiate, but I’m also pretty sure that what he’s radiating isn’t ‘electability’.

    I’ll put on my sombrero,
    And of course I’ll wear a pair o’
    Levis over my lead BVDs…

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  6. de stijl says:

    Bloomberg radiates Palpatine vibes.

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  7. de stijl says:

    I guarantee that Rs are 20 million times more focused on Bloombergs’ electability than D’s are.

    Hint to Rs: he cannot win. It is impossible.

    Tom Steyer and Bloomberg, and those dudes have no chance.

    Your preference is utterly meaningless.

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  8. Tyrell says:

    @grumpy realist: Bloomberg has some positives and negatives.
    He has experience in managing business and government. He has proposals to deal with the opiod crisis. Crime went down when he was mayor of NYC. He is opposed to the extreme socialist proposals of some of the Democrat candidates (free college, income for not working, everyone put on Medicare if they want it or not)
    This is a man who gets $40 martinis, but wants to ban soft drinks. He wants to do away with guns, but goes around with guards that carry assault rifles He wants to end coal usage but has no specifics ideas for alternatives. He is tied to world government organizations.
    Bloomberg could have trouble connecting with the average, working people.
    Arrogant? Arrogance is proposing unconstitutional confiscation of legally owned property of the law abiding citizens (Salwell, Beto)

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  9. @Tyrell:

    He is tied to world government organizations.

    Sigh.

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  10. wr says:

    @Tyrell: “This is a man who gets $40 martinis, but wants to ban soft drinks.”

    I’m kind of curious why you are so obsessed with these “$40 martinis.” I get that your general interest in life is the price of Doritos, but that at least affects you directly. How much a martini costs at a high-end New York establishment seems to have little to do with your life.

    By the way, here in NYC $15 is low-end for a martini — $12 seems like the bargain of the year. You can expect to pay $20 at a bar in a decent hotel. Even Bemmelman’s is only around $20.

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  11. de stijl says:

    I can’t be near you /
    The light just radiates

    (Malibu by Hole)

    Hole got a bad take because of Courtney Love.

    Countertake: Hole is awesome and Courtney Love is a a fabulous singer / songwriter.

    (Apparently I was at the same house party as Love in the mid to late 80s. I have friends who swear by this wholeheartedly to this day. I believe them, I just can’t recall her. Supposedly, there was a dramatic scene caused by her – totally fits.

    There is a high probability I was too wrecked to recall.)

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  12. de stijl says:

    Bloomberg cannot win the nomination. Bloomberg cannot cadge one percent of the D vote.

    The only people who are fans are Rs or R leaners.

    He is a vanity candidate. I’m sure he has strong opinions about taxation. Bully for him. I have opinions too.

    If he *actually* runs, Bloomberg will poll as high Steyer which is less than one percent.

    Ignore the vanity “candidate”.

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