Michael Bloomberg’s North Carolina Game Is Seriously Unlike Anything Else

The Super Tuesday state is the former New York mayor’s best shot at primary delegates — and he knows it

SSeeing the Bloomberg presidential campaign up close, there is no easy way to describe it. The campaign is simultaneously a sophisticated, well-funded effort to win the presidency and a bizarre grift that allows staffers to enjoy catered meals and six-figure incomes. It has inspired some people to get involved in politics and is at least attempting to create the framework for a real volunteer effort. But it also shows off that ground game to reporters with a Potemkin canvass that seems like a cobbled-together public relations exercise rather than a window into an organic grassroots effort. And, of course, it is a giant marketing effort with a volume of ads across all media — television, radio, online — on a staggering scale.

North Carolina may be Bloomberg’s best state on Super Tuesday, and on paper, Bloomberg’s organization in North Carolina is formidable. By Super Tuesday, the campaign will have 10 offices and a staff of more than 125 in the state. Bloomberg has already spent $14.4 million on advertising in North Carolina. That’s more than Bernie Sanders, his most well-financed competitor, has spent on the air in all 14 Super Tuesday states combined. Bloomberg even opened his first campaign office in the country in Charlotte. When GEN visited, the space was impressive: an entire two-story building in the heart of the city’s downtown, the mayor’s name painted in giant letters across an atrium that served as the lobby and was dotted with campaign signs with slogans like “I Like Mike” and “Protect Trans Rights.” Bloomberg had even discreetly autographed a closet door under the staircase as a sign of his presence.

The Tar Heel State features vast numbers of moderate pro-business white Democrats in and around Raleigh and Charlotte who are turned off by both Trump’s Republican Party and Bernie Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism. In particular, in Charlotte, Bloomberg touts the endorsement of former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl. It’s the perfect marriage of the one campaign that would tout a bank CEO’s endorsement in 2020 and an area where such an endorsement is an unalloyed positive among Democrats.

On the ground, Bloomberg’s campaign seems like a cobbled-together public relations exercise rather than a window into an organic grassroots effort.

North Carolina also features a significant African American population — black voters made up 32% of the primary electorate in 2016 — and the potential collapse of Joe Biden has opened up opportunities for a well-funded rival.

Bloomberg’s state director, James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a longtime Charlotte city councilman, described it as “general election campaign staffing [in a primary election] for the first time in the history of North Carolina politics.”

Mitchell divided his staffers into three groups: There were those who “drank the Kool-Aid,” those who “like presidential elections,” and those who were simply drawn by a paycheck — particularly the lavish salaries offered by Bloomberg that started at $6,000 a month for a lowly field organizer. Mitchell described the motivation of the latter group as “I never made this amount of money in my life. This is a great opportunity.” In his view, each group made up roughly a third of the Bloomberg team in the state. But he was optimistic that, less than two weeks before Election Day, he could get all the campaign’s employees on board. “I got 60% that are built in and say I’m committed [between Bloomberg fans and the professional operatives], and I’m working on the other ones,” Mitchell said.

In addition to his efforts to win over staffers already on payroll to drink the Kool-Aid like he did, Mitchell said the campaign was confident about reaching the 15% threshold necessary to win delegates in 11 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. He thought they had turned a corner in the 1st Congressional District, which includes rural, African American areas in the northeastern part of the state, by opening up a field office in Rocky Mount. The 11th District, in the western tip of North Carolina, still gave him “a lot of heartburn,” as the campaign stayed below 15% in the area but was still hoping to build up its support, particularly in the district’s progressive urban center of Asheville.

Mitchell said the campaign was focusing on three demographics: white suburban voters, older African Americans, and Latinos. The response from Latinos surprised Mitchell. In the campaign’s first poll of the state, their support among Latinos was only 3%. Less than two weeks before Super Tuesday, it had reached 17.8%. In contrast, 19% of African Americans supported Bloomberg in their polling, and the state director hoped to push that number to 22% with an extensive outreach program to historically black colleges and universities. The sparse public polling of North Carolina has shown a tight three-way race between Bloomberg, Sanders, and Biden. National surveys show Bloomberg consistently in third place, albeit with a mild drop over the past week in the RealClearPolitics polling average after his poor performance in the Nevada debate.

A senior Bloomberg campaign official based in New York told GEN the campaign’s field program in North Carolina represented a full-scale operation, where newly hired staffers attended every county Democratic Party meeting to establish a presence. The idea was “to meet people where they are,” a process similar to a presidential campaign in Iowa or New Hampshire, with the exception that voters in North Carolina were far more “ready to commit and ready to commit earlier.”

The senior campaign aide felt confident in Bloomberg’s efforts to reach voters, especially those the campaign had modeled as both likely voters and persuadable. “We are absolutely crushing that universe,” the aide said.

But the campaign official noted that some voters might get extra attention as they claw for delegates in each congressional district: “If we literally have 1,500 additional supporters [identified] in a district that is decided by 500 voters, we may do something as old school as knock on their door 10 times.”

Brad Miller, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina, noted that Bloomberg’s 125 paid staffers are not enough to contact the number of voters you need to reach in a statewide primary. “You really can’t buy that [kind of organization],” Miller said. “And 125 people won’t be enough to make that happen if that 125 aren’t backed up with volunteers.”

Mitchell estimated the campaign had between 400 and 500 volunteers who had taken at least one action for the campaign, and they hoped to reach 900 by Super Tuesday. According to the campaign, canvassers knocked on 25,000 doors this past weekend alone.

OnOn a recent Saturday afternoon, this reporter, along with another journalist, set out with two communications aides, two additional campaign staffers, and eight volunteers to see the Bloomberg campaign operation in action. They would be knocking on doors in a prosperous Charlotte neighborhood, where foreign cars lined the streets of well-kept bungalows. With the exception of the journalists, everyone was wearing Bloomberg shirts.

For some volunteers, like the corporate executive who drove a Tesla with a Bloomberg bumper sticker and insisted his name not be used, it was their first time getting involved. Others, like John Drawbaugh, who was described as a campaign “super volunteer,” told GEN that they had knocked on doors on behalf of the former New York mayor roughly a half-dozen times

After meeting in a supermarket parking lot, everyone initially traveled in one awkward and unwieldy group. A field organizer stood on the sidewalk, holding a clipboard with a list of voters. She assigned people in an ad hoc manner to knock on a specific door in groups of two or three and then report their findings to her.

The field organizer, a twentysomething who had left a local job as a derivatives analyst to join her first political campaign, insisted this was normal. One volunteer, Stephanie Sneed, who had done some door knocking for Hillary Clinton in 2016, was confused; the Clinton campaign had given her a list of doors to knock and assigned a partner to go out with her. That was simple and efficient — this was not.

Eventually, one of the communications staffers made the sensible suggestion that the volunteers should break up into smaller groups for the sake of efficiency rather than going door to door as a horde. The list of voters was broken up. Each of the smaller clusters was handed a few pages of doors to knock, and everyone scattered down the gently curving streets to spread the gospel of Michael Bloomberg.

A senior campaign aide felt confident in Bloomberg’s efforts to reach likely or persuadable voters:“We are absolutely crushing that universe.”

The reporter from GEN went off with four volunteers and one minder. Volunteers knocked on doors singly or in pairs, while another Bloomberg supporter remained on the street, holding the clipboard with a paper list of names and addresses. Those knocking would report their findings from each door to the person holding the clipboard, who would mark the result on the list.

This is a bizarre and staggeringly inefficient way to knock doors. When GEN reached out to a number of experienced Democratic operatives, none had ever heard of such an approach. Normally, volunteers would canvass on their own or in tandem, each with their own list. Assigning a staffer or a volunteer to simply stand around holding a clipboard struck operatives as insane.

In the course of visiting roughly a dozen doors in nearly one hour, the reporter witnessed only one conversation with a voter. Steve Menaker seemed to be the platonic ideal of a potential Bloomberg voter. He was a former Republican who despised Trump and had changed his registration to vote in the Democratic presidential primary. Menaker praised Bloomberg’s television ads as “phenomenally well-done” and noted that he had just seen one featuring NBA great Tim Duncan. He told the canvassers he was leaning toward Bloomberg, though he thought the former New York mayor “had a horrible debate [in Nevada], oh my god.” The Bloomberg volunteers did not seriously contest that point but went on to ask him to volunteer or even take a yard sign. Menaker demurred.

“I think I am like many people,” he told GEN. “I want to be fiscally responsible and socially fine with almost anything. I’ve got a gay son.” In his view, “We need a moderate. We don’t need a nutjob.”

After about an hour — far shorter than the standard three-hour volunteer shift in most campaigns — the organizers declared the canvass was over, and everyone returned to the parking lot. Most of the volunteers left, although several went off to knock some more, accompanied by the field organizer with her clipboard.

BBut a campaign isn’t just about volunteers knocking on doors. Mitchell told GEN the campaign was launching a paid canvass this week targeting older African Americans who are leaning toward Bloomberg in five key counties with major population centers: Mecklenburg, Guilford, Durham, Cumberland, and Forsyth. “We are taking [those voters] that are leaning toward Mike and giving them to paid canvassers,” Mitchell said.

The campaign has also been prioritizing political elites and racking up endorsements from mayors and legislators at a brisk pace in the state. Mitchell touted them and argued for their efficacy. “I do think they mean a lot to the average voter. They don’t mean a lot to folks on CNN, because everything’s about data to them,” the Bloomberg aide said. “But the ones who are going to vote, who we need to reach, it means a lot to say, ‘You know, I saw Mayor [Vi] Lyles endorsing. I voted for her for mayor of Charlotte. If that’s who she supports, I’ll support him, too.’”

One key factor in the endorsements was Bloomberg’s commitment to spend money on down-ballot races in the state. Graig Meyer, an uncommitted Democratic state representative, told GEN the Bloomberg campaign “has been the clearest about the mission to help Democrats up and down the ballot and in the state legislative race.” Bloomberg committed early on to pay his Tar Heel State field staffers through the general election. Still wrestling with his ballot choice, Meyer said, “If I vote with my personal heart, I know where I go. But I care more about North Carolina and flipping the legislature than my personal interest of who the president is.”

The campaign was also doing constituency outreach. Mitchell bragged that his campaign was the first to reach out to the Lumbee Tribe, a community of 55,000 in the southeastern part of the state, and was sending two staffers to meet with a group of about 40 tribal members. As a result, he was confident that the campaign would win Robeson County, the center of the state’s Lumbee population. It’s not a huge voting bloc, according to J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, who told GEN that in the 15 precincts that were majority/plurality Lumbee, just over 6,100 votes were cast in the 2016 primary.

LLast Friday, roughly half a dozen African American pastors gathered at the campaign’s Charlotte headquarters for a catered meal of fried flounder and grilled shrimp. They sat on folding chairs around tables arranged in the headquarters lobby and were joined by a smattering of staff and others attracted to the free food. The office was otherwise almost entirely empty on this North Carolina “snow day,” where the sky was blue and the roads were clear.

Staffers asked the pastors about their concerns regarding Bloomberg and the election. Those concerns boiled down to two issues: They wanted a candidate who could beat Trump, and they were wary of the New York mayor’s record on issues like stop and frisk.

Tonya Rivens, a local African American radio personality hired to oversee the campaign’s constituency outreach to all groups in the state, told the group that Bloomberg’s stewardship of New York City had inspired her cousin while he was locked up in a New York state prison. “We have a mayor who is trying to make things better for us,” she recalled her cousin telling her. She then brought up the 1994 crime bill — the now-controversial legislation supported by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders that combined gun control measures with tougher criminal sentencing — and insisted “there is no perfect candidate.” At times, Rivens consulted a preprinted fact sheet about Bloomberg.

Rivens’ campaign colleague Veronica Cannon insisted Bloomberg was the only candidate who could defeat Trump. “Two of the candidates are too far left, and the other candidates I don’t believe will stand up to Trump, and I believe he will eat them alive.” She also falsely claimed, “As a mayor, he was able to bring the minimum wage to $15 an hour.” (Bloomberg now supports a $15 per hour minimum wage but opposed efforts to raise the minimum wage to an even lower level while in office.)

Mitchell, the Bloomberg state director, added that when Bloomberg “got the data [about stop and frisk] and realized disproportionately African American and Latino men were being incarcerated, he said, ‘We need to pause and do this program differently.’”

The pastors were not impressed. Kenneth Robinson, the bald, burly, and bearded pastor from Creek Church, warned the campaign, “With millennials, it’s one thing: stop and frisk.” Another pastor, Robert Scott, from St. Paul’s Baptist Church, said the feedback he’d gotten was that Bloomberg had “come across as smug and arrogant” during his first debate in Nevada and that the “pastors in New York haven’t gotten over stop and frisk. No, they haven’t.”

Afterward, in interviews with GEN, several pastors expressed mixed opinions about the former New York mayor and his standing in the African American community. “My young folks are having conversations about stop and frisk and Eric Garner and Kalief Browder,” said Robinson, who was leaning toward Bloomberg. “My older ones, they like Biden and are open to Bloomberg.”

Scott, who was also considering Elizabeth Warren, said Bloomberg’s hires within the local African American community were what got him to attend the event. “In this area, he’s got some pretty good folks that are backing him, and that’s why I’m here,” Scott said. “I’m not just here because of him, but because he has reached out to people who I have high esteem for.”

Staffers could be divided into three groups: There were those “who drank the Kool-Aid,” those who “like presidential elections,” and those who were simply drawn by a paycheck.

Dwayne Walker, pastor at Little Rock AME Zion Church, said he was initially supportive of Joe Biden. “I’m a huge Obama fan and felt as if it was refreshing that they would have part of that ticket back.” However, Walker described himself as “somewhat disenchanted” with Biden’s performance.

In considering Bloomberg, stop and frisk was also “a big concern” for Walker. “It speaks to this preconceived notion that blacks feel that white people have that just by virtue of us showing up, we are automatically a suspect,” he said.

He did find Bloomberg’s apology for stop and frisk to be “very important,” because it “acknowledges the fact that it is something that shouldn’t happened” and includes steps to “correct it.”

Walker made clear, however, that his number one issue was beating Donald Trump. “I don’t care if it’s Mickey Mouse or Humpty Dumpty” as the Democratic candidate, he said.

There was considerable skepticism in the room toward Pete Buttigieg, who, like Bloomberg, is a former mayor who is wooing moderate Democrats. One key difference is that Buttigieg is gay. This came up quite often. When Mitchell, the campaign’s state director, started listing the candidates, he noted, “You have Biden, Sanders, Warren, Butti-Jay.” He then gestured toward Walker and said, “Pastor, you got me saying what you were saying—Butti-Jay,” to laughter in the room. Mitchell added, knowingly, “He said something different — I’m cleaning it up.”

Walker cited Buttigieg’s sexual orientation afterward as a concern: “I don’t think I’m comfortable with the husband. I don’t think I’m comfortable with that. It’s going to take me a minute to wrap my head around that.” Walker made clear that he believed “people are free in terms of who they love. I have evolved to that degree.”

“I am concerned about who could beat Trump, and I think that issue would be a deterrent for persons who would probably otherwise consider voting Republican,” echoed Robinson, in more guarded terms. “I don’t think America is ready for him. I think there are a lot of issues.”

Biden still had support among voters GEN talked to at early voting sites, who referred to him familiarly as “Old Joe” or “Uncle Joe” and fondly recalled his ties to Obama. However, at a polling place in Greensboro on Friday, GEN spoke with two African American retirees who voted for Bloomberg: Vernon Donnell and his wife, who declined to give her name. Both were looking for a candidate to “go back to the middle,” as Vernon Donnell put it. “Trump’s organization is too far to the right, and Bernie is too far to the left. I want somebody who is where everybody else is.”

They still felt some ambivalence about their decision to vote for Bloomberg. As Donnell’s wife put it, “There are some things about that man that give me pause. I don’t think he has a heart for our community, even though the ads say that.”

MMoney can do a lot of things. It can pay to blanket the airwaves in television ads or for campaigns to hire surrogates and validators in the African American community. It can pay for stacks of T-shirts in nearly empty campaign offices and a staffer’s weekday afternoon pomegranate martini at a hotel bar. It can be used to comfort anxious Democratic officials with the promise of funding down-ballot campaigns in a state where Republicans have long been in control. It can be used to hire a sizable field staff to recruit volunteers, and it can be used to paper over the holes if the volunteers don’t materialize. It can’t, however, transform Michael Bloomberg into a different candidate.

Bloomberg suffered through his second consecutive subpar debate performance on Wednesday, and his record on stop and frisk seems to be a permanent blemish on his reputation with African American voters, particularly younger ones. Even his messaging as the Democrat who can beat Trump is more suited to inspire a calculated vote than the type of enthusiastic conversion that leads people to give their time to the candidate in a competitive primary. But that may not matter.

If Joe Biden loses South Carolina to Bernie Sanders on Saturday, three days before Super Tuesday, it has the potential to turn the race into a binary choice, and that’s the type of campaign Bloomberg seems to be building. It’s designed to make the pitch to Democrats that if they have to pick between two septuagenarian Semites with questionable ties to the party, Bloomberg is the lesser of two evils.

It’s not a campaign of inspiration or passion. It’s one of calculation. After all, Bloomberg is not spending the money to buy love. It just has to make him more tolerable than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

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