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Analysis: Testing the Texas political waters by breaking the rules

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Fort Bend County’s special House election isn’t the only historically Republican spot where Texas Democrats have been testing their strength. There is another long-shot attempt at disruption underway, with bigger stakes.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is skipping the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses in early states. Instead, he is concentrating his efforts on Texas and the other 13 Super Tuesday states, throwing money around like the billionaire that he is, advertising his name and trying to build an organization to wrest the presidential nomination away from the contenders in those earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

Those other Democrats are focused mainly on those four states. That’s the standard operating procedure in presidential campaigns, and it has been since Georgia’s Jimmy Carter surprised other Democrats in 1976, focusing on Iowa while they were focused on the standard operating procedure of the time — campaigning in big states with more electoral juice.

Carter finished second in Iowa. But “uncommitted” was first; all of the more prominent senators and governors and others finished behind him.

It was a surprise because it worked. And it will be a surprise if Bloomberg’s experiment works, too.

On the other hand, it’s an interesting and risky strategy, and it doesn’t cost anything to watch and learn.

Bloomberg was more or less unnoticed as a presidential candidate in Texas until he started pouring money into television. His on-air ubiquity is already boosting his name ID in the state; just how much will be tested in polls between now and the start of early voting on Feb. 18.

And recognition of a contestant’s name isn’t the same as winning the support of the Democratic voters who’ve been watching a herd of candidates arguing over resumes and issues for months.

Texas election history is littered with names of wealthy folks who burned wads of their own money on their way to defeat: Clayton Williams Jr., Tony Sanchez Jr. and Ross Perot, to name a Republican, a Democrat and an independent.

Nearly everyone in politics puts his or her own twist on things, but most candidates stick with conventional strategies. Perot, who had to file boxes of petitions to get on the ballot and who advertised his campaign with half-hour infomercials, was an exception. He influenced the outcome of the 1992 presidential race, winning almost 19% of the popular vote. But nobody has turned to his race in the search for best practices, the way they did after Carter won Iowa, the nomination and then a general election against incumbent President Gerald Ford.

Bloomberg is the latest well-financed candidate to really mess with the formula.

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Conventional wisdom is that candidates have to do well enough in early states to keep the money coming in, then have to keep enough money coming in to keep their campaigns successful on Super Tuesday and in the elections that follow in quick succession.

Bloomberg doesn’t have that motivation. His wallet is full, and he doesn’t need to show support from the early, grueling primaries to be financially competitive in March.

We can already see from his ad blitz that he can run enough commercials to embed his name in our brains. The question is whether he can turn voters’ heads at the same time, winning their interest and then their support away from the more conventional candidates.

If Bloomberg’s right, the strongest candidate after the early states will face a serious obstacle in Texas and the other Super Tuesday states. Success with this strategy of running late and ignoring the early handshake-to-handshake primaries could catch on. Dozens of politicians have eaten corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair because of Jimmy Carter.

If Bloomberg is wrong about starting late and spending a fortune on advertising, he’ll go home a loser, leaving a long line of prosperous and happy broadcasters in his wake.

We’ll know when the ballots are counted March 3.

Credit: by , Texas Tribune

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