In the long slog of presidential elections, candidates don’t have to think about New Jersey much because it usually holds its primary in June, after the likely nominee is obvious.
Enter Mike Bloomberg and his billions of dollars.
The former New York mayor and Republican-turned-Democrat opened his first campaign office in New Jersey this month, an unusual move given the state is nearly last on the 2020 primary calendar. Bloomberg is the first Democratic candidate to have a brick-and-mortar presence in the state, in keeping with his strategy to invest in later voting states, on the belief no prohibitive front-runner will soon emerge.
“I think [we] should expect a long primary season,” said Michael Muller, Bloomberg’s state director. “I feel like we have great momentum in New Jersey."
Bloomberg is having a moment, though his rocky first debate performance in Las Vegas on Wednesday renewed concerns about his durability. Bernie Sanders is the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, but Bloomberg has steadily risen in national polls, and on Tuesday, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Poll showed him even with Sanders for the lead in New Jersey.
But the question remains: Why start so early in the Garden State?
For one thing, Bloomberg aides are eyeing New Jersey voters who will cast primary ballots by mail, Muller said. On April 18, nearly 500,000 primary ballots will be sent to voters registered as Democrats or unaffiliated with a party. The campaign hopes Bloomberg’s momentum and early presence in the state, along with $7.5 million in broadcast, online, and TV ads in the Philadelphia media market — which spills into South Jersey — can help it bank some early votes.
“Vote-by-mail is now a little bit more standard way people are used to voting in New Jersey,” Muller said. “Campaigns that are organized and communicate with voters early are gonna be in much better position.”
As of last week, the campaign had close to a dozen paid staffers in the state. Most are focused on field operations, contacting voters and identifying potential supporters. They hope to grow to around 24 paid positions in March. The first Bloomberg office is in Marlton, and the campaign plans to open about five more.
“Starting early certainly can’t hurt,” said Phil Swibinski, a Democratic strategist with ties to Gov. Phil Murphy. “At the same time, there’s a long runway to go.”
New Jersey will send 128 delegates to the national convention in Milwaukee this summer. A total of 107 are to be allocated based on the results of the June 2 primary. A candidate needs 1,991 delegate votes to win the nomination.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton was battling Bernie Sanders, but the Associated Press declared her the presumptive nominee the day before New Jersey’s primary. (She carried the state, 63% to 37%, anyway.) In 2008, New Jersey moved the primary to Feb. 5, before the nomination was decided. Clinton won the state handily over Barack Obama.
The 2020 field may still be muddled come June, and Bloomberg’s name recognition, centrist record, and money could make him a consensus choice for moderate Democrats.
“Sanders has captured the hearts and minds of Jersey progressives… while Bloomberg is it for moderates,” said Krista Jenkins, director of the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. The former mayor is performing better in the Garden State than in national polls, she added. "Some of that could be simple name recognition, as Democrats [here] are more likely to know something about Bloomberg than are others nationally.”
But his established name recognition could have a downside, too.
“There’s certainly a higher level of familiarity,” said Swibinski. “That can cut both ways, though. A lot of his record that’s pretty controversial that’s being aired right now — people who are in the New York media market might be more aware of some of those issues.”
Bloomberg is getting early scrutiny in New Jersey. Much has been made of Bloomberg’s embrace of the controversial stop-and-frisk policing practice that targeted African American men in New York. But Muslim activists say Bloomberg also backed a surveillance program that allowed the NYPD, in collaboration with the CIA, to use undercover informants to spy on Muslims in the city and North Jersey.
Bloomberg has apologized for stop-and-frisk. Many in New Jersey’s Muslim community are also looking for an apology.
“He shouldn’t wait for us to call him. He should admit his wrongs," said Selaedin Maksut, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New Jersey chapter. “If he genuinely feels remorse for stop-and-frisk policies, there shouldn’t be an issue speaking to the policies of spying on American Muslims."
Bloomberg’s campaign may also be a boon for local political operatives. His campaign is known to pay above-market salaries and provide perks like new iPhones and meals. His early start in New Jersey could help him poach some of the best talent in the state before other campaigns begin hiring.
“He is hiring extraordinary talent nationwide. … He’s going to gobble up a lot of the talent here,” said William Pascrell III, a lobbyist who has advised top New Jersey Democrats. “He has the resources to pay for it.”
But even with all the talent, early spending, and campaign infrastructure, Bloomberg still has to connect with New Jersey voters.
He has cobbled together a few endorsements, most notably from Reps. Mikie Sherrill and Josh Gottheimer. But many, including Murphy and Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, are still on the sidelines.
“We’re here for the long haul," Pascrell said. "This is not going to be wrapped up anytime in the near future.”