Mike Bloomberg, who built his campaign in the shadows of the Democratic race, will formally enter the fray this week after a new poll out Tuesday qualified the former New York City mayor to participate in his first Democratic debate. Bloomberg’s inclusion in Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucus—which he is not on the ballot of—was clinched by a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist national poll showing Bloomberg with 19 percent, second only to Bernie Sanders’ 31 percent. The poll also qualifies Bloomberg for the following debate in Charleston ahead of the South Carolina primary. Bloomberg is also sitting out that contest, the final vote before Super Tuesday on March 3, when 16 states and territories cast their ballots.
Bloomberg’s rise in national polling shows that his strategy of sitting out the early states, waiting for Democratic attrition, and building support beyond the first four nominating contests is ahead of schedule. After entering the race just months ago, officially declaring his candidacy in November, Bloomberg has run an untraditional campaign where he has largely eschewed normal candidate stuff. With billions of dollars of his own personal wealth at his disposal, Bloomberg has poured more than $300 million into TV advertisements in Super Tuesday states, more than the rest of the field has spent combined in the entire race. The aim has been to boost his name recognition and attempt to define the onetime Republican—who spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention—before his rivals get a chance to. Because most candidates don’t have endless cash, they haven’t yet gotten to the states that the Bloomberg campaign is blanketing.
Ahead of his debate debut, Bloomberg had largely existed on the periphery of the Democratic conversation until his numbers perked up following Iowa and New Hampshire. Bloomberg had been polling in the single digits in a number of polls around the new year and he wasn’t eligible for the main Democratic debate ring, on which other candidates rely to get their message out, because he didn’t meet the DNC threshold that combined polling and numbers of donors to parse the candidates. The DNC, however, expanded upon its donor-polling formula for this next stage of the nomination process, and will also permit candidates to qualify to debate by registering 10 percent or more in four qualifying polls.
This week’s debate brings the billionaire mayor into the fold after a week of rising criticism of his past policies and statements on race and policing while mayor. Debating isn’t seen as one of Bloomberg’s strengths, hence his prepackaged made-for-TV candidacy thus far, and will give his rivals a chance to directly confront the now-contender on his record. Wednesday’s other debate participants will be Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former Vice President Joe Biden; and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Previous debate participants billionaire candidate Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii appear unlikely to meet the threshold to debate.