This week, I was surprised to find some common ground with Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. The multi-billionaire and former mayor of New York City is far from my top choice for this year’s Democratic ticket, but I must give him credit where credit is due: thus far, he is the only candidate that has called for one reform to the workings of the Democratic Party itself that I have long believed is overdue.
In a CNN op-ed on Monday, Bloomberg promised that if he is elected, he would ensure that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) works to reform the order in which states hold primary elections and caucuses that choose the party’s standard-bearer in the general election. The current calendar is dependent on an unnecessary expectation that the first contests are held in Iowa and New Hampshire — two of the smallest, whitest, most rural states in the country. However, as a result of their first-in-the-nation status, they have a singular ability to make or break White House hopes.
As I wrote in a column last February, the winner of the early contests is often annointed as the frontrunner with all of the electoral benefits that the title conveys — media coverage, attention from prominent donors and the DNC and the imprecisely defined but existentially crucial “momentum.” Because candidates who fail to accrue delegates in Iowa or New Hampshire often suspend their campaigns soon after, the two states ipso facto exercise outsize influence on who the rest of us see on the ballot in later primaries.
Moreover, when all of the candidates face off in Iowa in a few weeks, the winner, as you might reasonably expect, will reflect the concerns of Iowans. However, because the Hawkeye State reflects the demographics of the larger Democratic Party so poorly, its priorities likely don’t reflect those of the electorate. Meanwhile, other candidates who may better represent the opinions of Democrats across the country may not perform as well in Iowa and subsequently be weeded out — even if they could have done well later on down the road and been stronger candidates nationally.
Furthermore, due to the artificial importance conveyed to Iowa and New Hampshire, most Democratic campaigns have devoted vast sums of money and robust ground operations to two states that only have six votes and four votes, respectively, in the Electoral College. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign has spent its time in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina — all battleground states that Democrats lost by razor-thin margins in 2016. In 2020, Democrats need to reverse at least some of those results to secure an Electoral College victory, but every minute they spend in Iowa and New Hampshire while Trump campaigns full speed ahead in battleground states will put them at a disadvantage.
Herein lies the one way in which I believe that Bloomberg has his finger on the pulse of the Democratic Party more accurately than the DNC does. In his op-ed, he wrote that his campaign has basically decided to skip the first four early contests and take its message nationwide. In swing states across the country, the Bloomberg campaign is registering voters, funding anti-Trump digital ads and building field operations, and it will fund those field offices through the November general election no matter who the party nominates.
Although such radical campaign choices will likely reduce Bloomberg’s chances of being the nominee to virtually nil, I admire his boldness, and I hope that other Democratic leaders will join him in speaking up. If diverse battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida were first to hold primary contests, as Bloomberg 2020 campaign manager Kevin Sheekey suggested in a recent episode of the Campaign HQ podcast, the primary process could both better reflect the diverse Democratic Party and better allocate precious campaign resources. And, perhaps Hillary Clinton would have spent a little more time in Waukesha County.