Democratic Debate # 9: Bloomberg’s Las Vegas Gamble

(Prediction: In Vegas More Losers Than Winners, As Usual; And Three Important PR Lessons)

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

It’s appropriate that the February 19 debate, the first after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, will be in Las Vegas, Nevada. Because it’s time for the two front-running candidates, Sen. Sanders and Pete Buttigieg to wager a few bucks of their own money to show they have the confidence in what they have been saying for months: That they can attract peoples of all colors to their candidacy.

Democratic Debate # 8: So Long, Iowa. Hello Mike?Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada has a more diverse population and candidates from states with large minority populations have said that the two front runners cannot win the support of people of color voters.

(For a few years I spent time in Las Vegas, when playing key roles on accounts during the annual CES, the consumers electronics show, which despite its name was not open to consumers. At the CES convention, if you weren’t in the electronic trade, you were banished to the casinos. The display of electronics was only for individuals affiliated with the consumer technology business, disproving Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” and William Shakespeare’s “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Prohibiting consumers from attending a convention with the name consumer in its title might make sense to some people; to others it’s a bit misleading, but that’s not unusual  when you go down the list of names given to public policy organizations or statements issued on behalf of clients by people in our business.)

In Vegas, it’s not unusual for poker players to say, “Put-up or shut up.” It’s also time for the two front-runners to put up or shut up about their ability to attract people of color voters. Right? Maybe not. Vegas casinos stay in business because of people who know their luck will change with the next poker hand or roll of the dice.

The Nevada caucuses will be held on February 22. Early voting was allowed several days earlier. In keeping with the Las Vegas spirit, I’m wiling to bet a few $5.00 chips that regardless of the results, some candidates will say, “We’re hearing great things from our operatives regarding the South Carolina primary on February 29 and from the Super Tuesday primary states on March 3. Unlike a few other candidates who should have called it quits, Sen. Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick folded after New Hampshire, causing a colleague to say, “Patrick was a candidate? Surprise to me.” I’m also willing to place several $10 chips on black that other candidates will fold their cards before Super Tuesday.

However this column is about how the candidates who participated in the debate did.

But first, a brief review of how the hopefuls, in my opinion, did during the New Hampshire debate on February 7:

  • There was no clear winner. I thought Sens. Klobuchar and Sanders, along with former veep Biden and businessmen Tom Steyer all did well. However, Biden was the most improved. (The TV pundits disagreed with my evaluation regarding Biden. But they’re wrong much more often than I am, so I’ll not change my position.)
  • Sens. Klobuchar has the best closing statement.
  • Extra credit for Sanders and Steyer for being the first to turn their fire on President Trump. Sanders, early on, said, we re all united against Trump, and Steyer continually attacked the president throughout the debate, as he has in all the debates and reminded everyone he has been calling for Trump’s impeachment for much more than a year.

I also predicted that If Sen. Sanders overwhelmingly wins the New Hampshire primary on February 11, the less liberal candidates will band together to try and stop his momentum. If the New Hampshire results are close, it’ll be every man and woman for themselves until after Super Tuesday on March 3. Then the field will be winnowed to a few, all less liberal than Sanders, but all definitely on the liberal side of the political spectrum and all exceedingly more liberal than President Trump. If after Super Tuesday, Mayor Pete is still a viable candidate, the other remaining ones will form a “Stop Pete” strategy, not because they are necessarily against his positions, but because a mayor of a  small city with a little over a 100,000 citizens does not have the national governmental experience to be president of the United States. If this scenario plays out, it’ll open the door to some other Democratic senators or governors to declare their candidacy, and also strengthen the candidacies of Sens. Klobuchar and, maybe, Bloomberg. (My experience at the tables during the CES show proved one thing: It’s easier to lose than win. But at least if I’m wrong about this, it won’t cost me any money.)

To paraphrase former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, “How am I doing in the prediction biz?” So far, it’s a push. I’m now betting a few dollars that Sen. Klobuchar will draw closer to Sen. Sanders and Mayor Pete after the Nevada results are counted, and I’m also wagering money on a long shot candidate in the futures market – that Michael Bloomberg will be in serious contention after Super Tuesday. 

Did Anything Happen After the New Hampshire Debate And Before The Nevada One On February 19? Yes, Some Were The Same Old, Same Old. However, there were significant occurrences.

  • The New: Three-and-a-half lines in a Wall Street Journal February 8-9 political column caught my attention. It said that President Trump’s State of the Union speech audience “dropped 20% from last year, from 46.9 million to 37.2 million, according to Nielsen. That’s a significant loss of audience that could mean people are tiring of his act and are tuning him out. (None of the TV pundits mentioned this nor did I read it anywhere else, but I know I didn’t dream it because my WSJ invoice was tucked inside the paper.)
  • The Old: As soon as the Iowa caucuses were history, the candidates loaded up their ammunition and trucked them to New Hampshire, unloaded it and began attacking their competitors. Examples: Former veep Biden and Mayor Pete assailed each other about the experience of both, with Biden also stressing Buttigieg’s inability to attract black voters; Sen. Sanders attacked former mayors Pete and Bloomberg; Mayor   Pete and Sen. Klobuchar traded blows. But there was also something new about the inter-party feud: The new Fighting Joe appears to have discarded his Democrats shouldn’t attack Democrats credo. Now the candidate who loves the others the most is Steyer. (Unfortunately for Biden his new demeanor might have come too late.)
  • Significant occurrence # 1: In my opinion, the most significant event to emerge from the New Hampshire primary was the February 11 election night speech by Sen. Sanders in which he said, ‘What I can tell you with absolute certainty, and I know I speak for every one of the Democratic candidates, is that no matter who wins,… we’re going to unite together and defeat the most dangerous President in the modern history of this country,” His speech was noteworthy because in the 2016 election he didn’t issue a call for party unity and didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton until July.
  • Significant occurrence # 2: That Michael Bloomberg qualified for the sound bite TV program; another first for Bloomberg was that for the first time, on February 17, he criticized another hopeful by name, Sen. Sanders, saying his tactics were similar to President Trump.
  • Significant occurrence # 3: Bloomberg’s announcement that (unlike President Trump, who still owns his business) if elected president he would put Bloomberg L.P. into a blind trust with the intent of selling it. The company could be valued at up to $60 billion, according to reports.
  • The Dirty: A few hours prior to the debate, the Sanders’ campaign, which has been accused of playing dirty, did it again, when Sanders’ press secretary Briahna Joy Gray told CNN that Bloomberg had heart attacks. When confronted, she said that she misspoke.
  • One question Quiz: Was it Sen. Warren or Sen. Sanders who said the following, the day prior to the debate? “The financial system isn’t working the way it should for most Americans. The stock market is at an all-time high, but almost all of the gains are going to a small number of people.” Answer: Neither of them said it. The correct answer is Michael Bloomberg.

(By now, anyone who has been following the happenings on the campaign trail can recite the attack comments forward, backward and sideways. So let’s assume that the circular firing squad attacks will continue and unless something out of the ordinary occurs I’ll not mention them again in this column.)

What Happened During The Nevada Debate?

In addition to the former New York City mayor, others that were on the debate stage were Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.  Because there were fewer candidates, they should have had more time explaining their policies. Did they? Short answer: No.

That’s because, as usual, the candidate going into the debate with the most momentum was the target of the other candidates. So, it wasn’t a surprise that Bloomberg would be attacked because of his past policies, which he apologized for, and the money he is spending on his campaign, as if that’s a crime. (Notably missing from the attacks was the generous contributions he has made to liberal organizations over the years.) They didn’t ambush him, as Sen. Kamala Harris did to Joe Biden with her “I was that little girl story.” It was a full-fledged frontal attack, and they made it known days before the debate that Bloomberg’s past would be a significant topic during the TV show.

All of the candidates zeroed in on Bloomberg, as if he was the reason that they were cast as pawns in a made for television series that had them begging for time from inquisitors who probably don’t know the fine print details of the candidate’s policies.

Here’s my take-away from the debate.

  • As expected, all the candidates attacked Bloomberg, probably envious of his success as a businessman. The former NYC mayor responded that he’s the only person on the stage who has started a business and is giving away the profits from it.
  • The most vicious attacks on Bloomberg were by Sen. Warren, who also seemed the most desperate, probably because her hope of winning the nomination is fading away.
  • Former veep Biden, as usual, presented a cafeteria style of reasons that he said made him the best qualified candidate.
  • Klobuchar was her usual confident self; nothing outlandish, nothing new. Actually, very little specifics about her policies.
  • Mayor Pete, as usual, came across as Mr. Perfect, as if only he has the leadership qualities to lead the country. In fact. Sen. Klobuchar chided Mayor Pete by saying no one is a perfect as you are. (It would be unfair to say that mayor Pete has the biggest ego of the candidates. Anyone who thinks they have the ability to run the country has to have an over-sized ego. But because of his demeanor when speaking about other candidates Mayor Pete’s ego is always on display.)
  • Surprisingly, early in the debate, Sen. Klobuchar, Biden and Mayor Pete ganged up on Sen. Sanders, regarding his health plan.
  • As usual, Sen. Sanders had the most consistent message, as he has had since the first debate.
  • Mayor Bloomberg said the entire discussion was ridiculous. All it does is help re-elect Trump.
  • Even thought they are miles apart politically, Sen. Sanders and Bloomberg had one thing in common during the debate. They both were consistently attacked by the rest of the field.

    But the big question everyone wanted answered was, “How would Bloomberg handle the incoming flak?”

    He handled it fine. When criticized, he didn’t immediately start waving his hands or interrupting others to defend his position. He waited until it was his turn to speak before correcting mischaracterizations about him. He, and Sen. Klobuchar, acted like the adults in the room. But unlike Sen. Klobucher, Bloomberg’s comments were based on facts, instead of generalizations.

    If I had to choose the debate winner, it would be Bloomberg.

    (Advice to the candidates who didn’t do well during the debate: Don’t go to the casinos. Chances are you’ll also lose there.)

    My Take:

    • I’ve been asked why Tom Steyer is dong so poorly. Here’s my answer: Mike Bloomberg is known nationally for his public-service campaigns on a range of issues, including climate change, gun violence, public health, women’s rights, anti-tobacco programs and education. People know about his interest in these subjects because he lets the public know about them through PR and advertising. Tom Steyer is campaigning “as a progressive outsider with a business record, calling for    term limits in Congress, decriminalizing illegal border crossings and expanding the Supreme Court”. He says his top priorities are breaking the influence of corporations and addressing climate change. A good platform for a Democratic candidate. His problem is that most of what he has done has not been publicized nationally, and until he began his impeach Trump campaign he wasn’t well-known outside of the West Coast.
    • A nationally-known candidate like Bloomberg can skip the early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. But for new faces like mayor Pete and Steyer, participating in them was a must. They provide a vehicle to introduce themselves to a national audience.
    • Now that the results of the Iowa caucuses are official, (I guess), before I take the last horse and buggy leaving the friendly state, a question: Do you think that except for individuals who are personally involved with the campaigns, (and I include the media, who depend on the campaigns’ happenings for news material, even though it’s often a rehash of yesterday’s news) that the average Jane and Joe Voters are upset that the results were delayed. I don’t. The situation is similar to most PR crises. People involved with the crisis are certain that what happened, what they do, how they respond is the subject of conversations at every meal. Nonsense. In all the years that I’ve been in the business, the only time I heard “civilians” talk about a PR crisis          is when it happened and, maybe the next day, if it is of extended public interest.
    • Far be it for me to tell anyone who to vote for, but fanatics should consider one thing: It’s better to win with a compromise candidate than to lose with a minority support candidate.
    • Best statement from a candidate in New Hampshire: “Speaking about Donald Trump: “He is trying to divide us up. We are going to bring our people together, black and white and Latino and Native American, Asian American, gay and straight around an agenda that works for all of us, not just for one person.” – Sen. Sanders on Sunday, February 10.
    • Most surprising, and best, action by a candidate in New Hampshire: Sen. Warren, on February 11, when she refused to end her conversations with supporters, even though MSNBC’s Ali Vitali wanted to interview her. The interview took place a few minutes later.
    • The gap between President Trump and Sen. Sanders’ beliefs aren’t limited to political differences. On February 8, Trump tweeted that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame, despite his betting on baseball games. (Not a surprise since Trump seemingly doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.) Referring to reports that Major league Baseball was seeking to change the minor league system, Sanders said,: “If the multibillionaire owners of Major League Baseball have enough money to pay hundreds of millions in compensation to one superstar ballplayer, they damn well have enough money to pay minor-league players a living wage and prevent 42 minor-league teams from shutting down.” (Not a surprise considering Sanders policy statements.)
    • Are the cable news political commentators really unable to add two and two and get as an answer four? Or are they really unable to make a sensible report? All during the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary they kept saying that Sen. Sanders will not be able to repeat winning the primary by the margin he had in 2016, when he won more than 60% of the vote. It would have been nice if they added that in 2016 his only opponent was Hillary Clinton. In 2020, there were enough Democratic candidates in the primary to field a baseball team. (Some        commentators finally started to mention that the field was much larger than in 2016, but not for a few days. Maybe they had trouble figuring out two plus two equals four.)
    • I never take seriously what the candidates say on the debate stage. Their off-the-stage comments are more revealing of their positions to me. (Read the print pubs for that information.)
      But I will take seriously what the eventual Democratic nominee says when debating Trump.
    • The two candidates that have been most consistent with their messaging are Sen. Sanders and former mayor Bloomberg.
    • Candidates attacking others on the debate stage are meaningless to me. If the attacks against certain candidates were consistent, I might take them more serious. But they change according to the candidate that polls show is leading (for the moment).
    • Anyone who has closely been following the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates’ race should have noticed a similarity between TV political pundits, professional campaign mangers and self-anointed PR crises specialists: They all speak a good game but the results are often less impressive then their rhetoric. Important PR lesson for people in our business without impressive titles: Not having a supervisory title does not mean that you know less than those you report to. Do not let your good creative ideas and other work be co-opted by others. Keep a diary of your contributions to the success of a program and, if necessary, send them to top management if others take credit, which is another similarity between political and PR people—taking credit that they don’t deserve, but freely assigning blame to innocent staffers when things go sour.
    • I enjoy reading the New York Times’ political Op-Ed columnists, even the conservative ones I don’t agree with. Politically, I lean left of center. But I was taken back when liberal columnist Charles M. Blow suggested I can’t be a liberal unless I trash Bloomberg. To quote from his February 17 column, referring to Bloomberg’s past positions: “That doesn’t sound like the kind of leaders liberals should want, followed by “…and writers kept telling him he was doing massive damage…” Golly gee, whiz. Now I should have writers telling me what to think? And further down in this most one-sided Op- Ed column I’ve read in weeks, (which in some ways reminded me of President Trump’s long tweets) “Bloomberg knows that he is twisting the truth here. He just hopes you won’t notice.” Mr. Blow obviously thinks he has all the answers (like President Trump) and unless you agree with him he’ll decide if you are a liberal or conservative. There are many issues that should define a person’s place on the political spectrum; more than a few purity tests. Mr. Blow’s column reminds me, not of something that Mike Bloomberg would write, but something Donald Trump would write.

    In my opinion, holding a grudge against a candidate for what they did in the past is ridiculous. It’s the positions a candidate has now that should be the determining factor, and in this election, I’ll throw my lot in with the person who best can stand up to and defeat Donald Trump. While my heart belongs to Liz, my brain tells me that at this moment the best candidate to take on Trump is Bloomberg. And if circumstances change, so will my preference for a candidate, because as in all things in life, I believe flexibility trumps rigidity.

    (Re the above: I don’t believe in going down with the ship supporting my favorite candidate, even though the chance of winning is unlikely. Instead I’m a believer in the philosophy of Tacitus, the famous Roman Empire historian, who said, “He that fights and runs away, May turn and fight another day; But he that is in battle slain, Will never rise to fight again.”) 

    Another important PR lesson from the political scene: Never assume. Always remember that your tenure at an agency is not secure. For over a year, Joe Biden was the assumed candidate. Now he’s barely hanging on. In the 2016 election, because she was assumed to be a shoo-in, Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in “certain” Democratic states. They voted for Trump.

    And most important: Do not assume that praise from higher-ups for the good work you are doing will assure you of a lengthy career or promotion at an agency. It will not. At agencies, it’s not what you did yesterday to help the agency; it’s what are you doing today.

    And one more important lesson to remember from the political scene: Do what’s best for you, not your agency, as the candidates have been doing for themselves for the better part of a year, because in the final analysis, you are nothing but an employee number. In the political world, candidates and office holders always do what’s best for themselves. So does your agency management. So should you.

    Debate # 9 did provide a truly unique situation: Never before have I heard candidates bragging about not having a large amount of money.

    Solely because of Trump’s vindictiveness after the Senate voted to acquit (a picture of the president will now be aside the definition of “sore winner,”) I award this debate to the Democrats. The score is now Democrats 5, Trump 4.


    The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com or artsolomon4pr@optimum.net.

     

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