2020 elections

Why Bloomberg doesn’t care about skipping the Democratic debates

The billionaire could spend tens of millions of dollars on his campaign without ever directly confronting his rivals on stage.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg doesn’t plan to collect donations for his presidential campaign.

That means he won’t appear in the next Democratic debate — and risks missing the half-dozen debates planned for next year.

The billionaire businessman’s long-standing policy of bankrolling his political ambitions puts him in conflict with the Democratic National Committee’s requirements for participating in presidential primary debates. The threshold for the upcoming debate — hosted by POLITICO and PBS NewsHour on Dec. 19 — is 200,000 donors, with 800 donors in 20 different states.

Bloomberg’s absence from the debate stage is no small hurdle for the former Republican. While his personal resources dwarf his rivals’ — his official campaign launch was accompanied by a massive $34 million ad buy — Bloomberg can ill afford to pass up the opportunity to lay out his rationale for running and contrast his views on a stage with his rivals.

It also sets up an unusual scenario in which Bloomberg could be spending tens of millions of dollars on his campaign through the spring without ever directly confronting the Democrats he argues cannot defeat Donald Trump.

Bloomberg has signaled that he won’t contest DNC rules governing participation — and isn’t particularly perturbed by missing the debate.

“It is up to the DNC. They can set the rules,” Bloomberg told reporters in Virginia on Monday. “If they set the rules where I qualify, I would certainly debate. If they set the rules where I don’t qualify, then I won’t.”

There was no guarantee that Bloomberg would have made the December debate stage, regardless of whether he accepted contributions or not. To qualify for the debate, in addition to accumulating donors, candidates need to hit 4 percent in four polls approved by the DNC (or 6 percent in two DNC-approved early state polls).

That’s a mark only six candidates — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — have met so far, with a handful of other candidates close to meeting them.

In the two recent polls Bloomberg has appeared in — both taken in Iowa before he officially announced his bid, but after news reports that he was considering to do so — he fell short. The former New York City mayor hit 2 percent in one of the polls and didn’t register in the other.

The decision to willingly forgo the debate stage meshes with the type of catch-lightning-in-a-bottle campaign he is trying to run. He plans to skip the four early nominating states where organizing is at a premium and jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 15 states vote.

Bloomberg’s strategy is contingent on no clear frontrunner emerging from the early states, and a solid performance across the map on Super Tuesday. At that point, other candidates could be starved for cash and his nearly unlimited resources — his estimated fortune is $54 billion — would put him in a position to compete in big and expensive states like California and Texas. The idea is to run a general election-focused bid that tries to fly above the rest of the Democratic primary.

“What I want to do is talk directly to the public, and explain what I’ve done, and what I would do,” Bloomberg said at a news conference Monday. “If you say that in a debate, OK. Although it is hard to do that. I think I’d be much better off talking to the public, just like I am doing now.”

Bloomberg also said he had not talked to the DNC about the debate thresholds.

The series of debates thus far have had a mixed effect of the Democratic field. Qualifying for the debate has served as a validator for many campaigns, and standout moments in a debate have led to a windfall of campaign cash for many candidates. Failing to qualify for a debate has also contributed to the end of several struggling campaigns.

Still, no candidate has been able to sustain a big post-debate polling bump, and the thresholds have not winnowed the field drastically — even after a dramatic cut between the second and third round of debates this summer.

Ten candidates participated in the November debate — just two less than the October debate — and several other campaigns have soldiered on despite being left off stage. All 10 of the candidates who participated in the November debate have either cleared one of the two required thresholds for the December debate, or are close to clearing both, according to POLITICO’s tracking.

Bloomberg still has a shot at appearing on stage next year: The DNC has yet to announce how candidates can qualify for the half-dozen debates in the new year, and DNC Chair Tom Perez has not ruled out changing how candidates qualify to participate.

The six remaining debates are set to be scheduled through April — long after voters in many states cast their ballots. By then, if the field has narrowed to just a few candidates, the DNC might see fit to modify its polling and donor requirements for debate participation.

“We haven’t set the rules for after the first of the [new] year,” Perez said in an interview last week. “One thing we will consider is, what should the rules of engagement be after people have started voting? … What should the rules be once the voters have spoken, and we have some actual data from states?”

Short of ending the donor threshold, Bloomberg would have only one other, long-shot chance at making the debate: His campaign is selling branded merchandise — at cost, the campaign says — and each purchaser would count as a donor.

In any case, his allies aren’t sweating his potential absence.

“He doesn’t really care about getting in the debates,” a person close to Bloomberg told POLITICO. “They are a battle for relevance and he is already relevant.”

Maya King contributed to this report.