ROBERT COSTA: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Robert Costa.
Let’s pick up where we left off on our broadcast and open our notebooks on 2020. Joining us tonight, Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post; Josh Lederman, national political reporter for NBC News; Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; and Molly Ball, national political correspondent for TIME Magazine.
As Molly wrote in this week’s TIME Magazine, quote, “while the field has shrunk somewhat, it remains jumbled heading into the next contests, the…Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary…Buttigieg and Klobuchar remain little-known in those states…And billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg…is on the verge of qualifying for the next debate on February 19.”
Molly, your story, start with you. When you look at Mayor Bloomberg, where does his campaign sit inside the Democratic Party? Is there a lot of goodwill, is there anger about a billionaire trying to buy his way in? What’s your reporting tell you?
MOLLY BALL: It’s actually – I think when he first got in there was an assumption he probably wouldn’t get much traction because his ideological profile is so out of sync with particularly the sort of, you know, rank-and-file activists who vote in Democratic primaries. And it – and Elizabeth Warren in particular, her whole theme is about corruption and money in politics, and so she’s really gone after Bloomberg, saying he’s trying to buy it. But you know, you can’t buy an election without getting people to vote for you, and what we’ve seen is that this ad blitz – this incredible, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in ads in all of the Super Tuesday states and across the country, they’re good ads, they’re persuading people, and that’s why he’s getting traction. But also, I think there’s a lot of – there’s some goodwill for him in the Democratic Party because he has pledged that whether or not he is in the race, his money will be. So whoever the Democratic nominee is is going to have the advantage of potentially more than a billion dollars in independent spending by Mike Bloomberg aimed at bashing Trump.
MR. COSTA: Josh, I’m really curious about when you’re on the trail with Mayor Bloomberg. What’s it like? Are these events very professional? Is he shaking hands with voters, is he making the case, or is this a TV-heavy campaign with just a few events scattered around? What’s the real take here?
JOSH LEDERMAN: Yeah, I covered the wires for many years and it feels like being in the presidential bubble, being either with a general election nominee or covering a president himself. He swoops in, he’s there for 20 minutes, he speaks, and he gets out. He’s not spending a lot of time glad-handing with voters. I don’t think he thinks he needs to do that. He’s not spending a lot of time answering questions from voters. He gives his spiel and that’s it. And part of this, I think, is about the fact that he’s focusing on Donald Trump and not on the other Democrats, who are all competing in South Carolina and Nevada, and instead he’s trying to project as if he’s already the nominee, as if he’s already into this man-on-man fight with President Trump. And that has helped create this aura around him that seems to be growing.
MR. COSTA: What are the people like around him, Josh? You’ve covered city hall. Was Bloomberg mayor when you were there or was it only De Blasio?
JOSH DAWSEY: Partially, partially. He was there part of the time I covered city hall.
MR. COSTA: So I mean, people in our world as reporters know people – Howard Wolfson, Kevin Sheekey, these top Bloomberg advisers. What kind of strategists does he have around him? How do they see this race?
MR. DAWSEY: Very disciplined folks around him, very kind of traditional establishment folks around him. They’re not taking a lot of, I think, unnecessary risk. I think – here’s the way they see the race, the folks I’ve talked to around him. It will take other folks collapsing – it will take Biden collapsing, it will take others collapsing – and there will need to be – the Democratic Party at some point will need to coalesce behind someone. And Bloomberg thinks going across the country to all of these different states he’s talking to voters that the other candidates are not talking to, he’s putting ads in places the other candidates are not going, he’s doing all of these things in a national strategy hoping that when it actually comes that he’s on the ballot there’s still a desire for someone like him to be the unifying candidate. Whether that can happen or not I don’t know, but that’s their theory of the case. And frankly, it seemed more of a folly a few months ago than it does now. If you watch what’s happening now and you see the dynamics that are playing out across the primary, you can kind of see him getting momentum and it working.
MR. COSTA: Amna?
AMNA NAWAZ: Well, I mean, the other thing to realize at this point in the race is that – you know, I was thinking back to New Hampshire night. We had a Democratic strategist who’s been doing this years and years, Peter Hart, and he was saying what happens now is this whole thing moves from retail politics to wholesale politics after Iowa and New Hampshire, and that sort of aligns perfectly with the way that Bloomberg has been positioning himself and the way that he is messaging. Also, if you are one of the many, many early Democratic voters out there who are prioritizing what you want from a candidate, what we hear again and again regardless of where you are is I want someone who beats Donald Trump. That doesn’t matter if they’re progressive, if they’re a centrist, if they’re a moderate. And that is what the entire message of the Bloomberg campaign has been built around, so he’s speaking to those people.
MR. COSTA: So those voters are out there – they’re everywhere – who want to have electability at the top of their list of what they’re looking for in a candidate. But you also talk to these voters on the Sanders side of the aisle in the Democratic Party who want wholesale change, the structural change. Democratic socialist revolution.
MS. BALL: What I find so interesting about that actually is that it is such a universal phenomenon – the obsession with electability – that even Bernie Sanders is now making an electability argument. He has changed the sort of rubric of his late rallies in New Hampshire and the ones that he’s starting to do now for Nevada. They’re all called “Bernie Beats Trump” rallies.
And so he, too. You know, I think his followers see him as this sort of pure incorruptible above politics sort of figure. But he’s got his finger in the wind, too, and he knows that what – if he really wants to be the nominee and not just make a statement in this campaign he’s got to convince people that he can win, and it’s a different theory of change.
MR. COSTA: He’s making an interesting argument.
MS. BALL: But, you know, we’ve been hearing this argument from both parties for a long time. Do you do bold colors, a strong ideological vision, galvanize the base of your party, win that way? Or do you tack to the center, try to win over swing voters? That’s – there’s a lot more sort of political science evidence for that route. But politics is topsy-turvy and Donald Trump is president. Who knows?
MR. COSTA: To follow up on that, that’s such an important point. There’s a group in the Democratic Party, Josh, that sees populist anti-establishment figures like Senator Sanders as the key to get a groundswell of new voters and support, and there’s that Bloomberg model, which is win over the suburban voter with targeted ads on gun control and the economy, and that seems to be the divide about how do you actually beat Trump. They all want to beat Trump in the Democratic Party, but how do you do it?
MR. LEDERMAN: Right. There’s, basically, two ways you win elections. You drive up turnout among your base or you focus on persuadable voters in center, and Democrats have not yet figured out which of those two strategies is most likely to get Donald Trump defeated.
I think that’s why we see such high levels of anxiety among Democratic primary voters as of now and why the field coming out of the first few contests is still so muddled.
MR. COSTA: Pete Buttigieg, he’s been attacked by Rush Limbaugh this week. He’s facing a lot of intense attacks not only from the left but from the right. How is he faring?
MR. DAWSEY: Well, he had a very impressive finish in New Hampshire. The question will be – when I was down in South Carolina, there’s a lot of skepticism towards him there among African American voters. They don’t feel like they know him. He hasn’t been on the air a lot there.
He hasn’t really been entrenched in places like South Carolina before. I mean, at the end of the day, he is a compelling figure that many people love but he is not the national politician. The name ID is not as high as Biden’s. He doesn’t have that kind of institutional entrenched bond with some of these folks as the other candidates do. And it’s not saying that it’s – he couldn’t change it, that he could not surpass it, that he could not fix it. But I do think he has some uphill challenges past these first two states in places where he may not be the most natural sell.
MS. BALL: He’s got a – he’s got a stature problem, right. People look at him and they aren’t quite sure they’re seeing a president because of his age, because of his experience. He just hasn’t convinced a lot of people that he can fill those shoes and I think that’s what we’re going to see him really scrambling to do.
MR. COSTA: Final thoughts. Andrew Yang, running on universal basic income, drops out of the race this week. So does Senator Michael Bennet. Andrew Yang. Change the debate in the Democratic Party?
MS. NAWAZ: You know, I think he introduced a lot of ideas that weren’t previously in the discussion. For a guy who went from being, like, the single-issue candidate to actually making it into several debate stages and ended up being the only candidate of color left on those stages at some point, that was, certainly, important for the party in terms of messaging but also in terms of broadening the message. I don’t think it’s the last we’ve seen of Andrew Yang either, by the way.
But also, I just wanted to point out earlier on the Buttigieg issue, which was – and I do think a lot of his voters – Yang’s voters – could end up going to people like Buttigieg as well. While we wrestle with sort of where we are as a country and where we’re going to be and who we’re going to be, for whatever path Buttigieg has forward or not, it is worth noting that the first openly gay candidate for president polled a significant amount of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, and that is not something we could have said five years ago or 10 years ago.
MR. COSTA: So true. Any other thoughts? We’ll leave it there. It’s Valentine’s Day so everyone can go home and relax or go out. I’m sure you’re going to go out, Dawsey.
MR. DAWSEY: Whatever you think. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: All right. That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re there, check out our Washington Week-ly News Quiz.
I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.