Mike Bloomberg's 'Elitist' Farming Comments Could Be The Hillary Clinton 'Deplorables' Moment That Poses The Biggest Threat To His Campaign

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes the stage tonight in Las Vegas for his first nationally televised debate with fellow Democratic presidential candidates amid new controversy over a one-minute video in which the billionaire describes farming in overly simplistic and, some say, insulting terms. The development, many pundits believe, could pose the biggest threat to Bloomberg's nascent campaign yet, on par with Hillary Clinton's 2016 comments dismissing some Trump supporters as "deplorables"—remarks that have been described as a "political gift" to her opponent.

Even more than a recent stampede of negative headlines about Bloomberg—which include tales of sexual harassment lawsuits, insults about black people and women and criticism about allegedly racist stop-and-frisk police policies during his three terms in office—the farming remarks could prove devastating, observers say. The reason: They provide a powerful visual Trump can use to paint Bloomberg as a condescending coastal elitist to working-class swing voters in the heartland who might otherwise reject the incumbent.

"This is very damning because it'll fit neatly into a commercial where Bloomberg will look uninformed and patronizing compared to Trump, who says he's the man of the people—the people who do the real work in the country," says Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus at University of Illinois at Springfield, who has long studied the politics of agriculture.

The viral 58-second clip, seen more than 3.5 million times on Twitter alone since Friday, was lifted from a 2016 appearance at the University of Oxford in England in which Bloomberg, speaking to a group at the Said Business School, offered this succinct description of agriculture: "I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It's a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn."

Bloomberg's camp is complaining that the remarks were taken out of context and exploited by his rivals, specifically Democratic presidential front-runner Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. In a statement, campaign manager Kevin Sheekey pointed out that the clip leaves off "Mike's first sentence where he is referring to agrarian society that lasted 3,000 years, not farmers today."

Yet the full version of the video does not do much to clarify what Bloomberg is trying to say about the place of farming in the modern economy or demonstrate he understands how highly technological and data-driven agriculture is today.

After his synopsis of how to grow corn, Bloomberg went on to say: "At one point, 98 percent of the world worked in agriculture; today it's 2 percent in the United States. Now comes the information economy, and the information economy is fundamentally different because it's built around replacing people with technology...You have to have a lot more gray matter."

In a political world often driven by sound bites, the video clip could prove tough to live down. "If you've got an hour to sit down and talk about the evolution of work and the role of technology in modern society, you could explain your way out of this," Redfield notes. "But in politics, if you're explaining, you're losing."

michael bloomberg
Democratic presidential nominee and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may be President Donald Trump's preferred opponent in the 2020 election, according to a tweet Trump posted Tuesday. Brett Carlsen/Getty

'Tone Deaf' Candidates?

Redfield and others say Bloomfield's remarks are of a piece with the way other presidential contenders' comments have become emblematic of alleged disdain for average voters.

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama spent months fending off attacks first from rival Clinton and then from GOP nominee John McCain for describing some out-of-work Midwesterners as "bitter" people who "cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Four years later, the Obama campaign exploited a remark from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in which Romney said he'd written off 47 percent of American voters as Obama supporters who "pay no income tax."

And then, of course, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) comment of them all: In 2016, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton struggled to recover after suggesting that half of Trump supporters belong in a "basket of deplorables," who are "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic."

Trump and his conservative media allies are already making hay with Bloomberg's farming gaffe. Fox News has run no fewer than a half-dozen stories on the comments in the past two days, generating a new headline or clip every time a Republican politician— from South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to Representative Devin Nunes of California—condemns them.

Donald Trump Jr. tweeted about it. So has John Pence, son of Vice President Mike Pence, who posted a video showing gritty images of farmers narrated by the late radio personality Paul Harvey reading his classic 1978 speech, "So God Made A Farmer." "Contrary to what Bloomberg says," Pence wrote, "farming takes much more than dirt and water––and @TeamTrump knows that."

While thus far only Sanders has highlighted the remarks, other Democrats are sure to pile on if the matter comes up during the Democratic debate, observers say. Candidates like former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota can burnish their Midwestern bona fides by slamming Bloomberg as out of touch, Nevada Independent columnist John L. Smith says. "They'll say, 'This defines tone deaf, and we already have tone deaf in the White House,'" Smith says.

Farmers Weigh In

One group clearly unhappy with Bloomberg's views on farming: farmers themselves. "Our Twitter feed was just blowing up yesterday with people responding to this, so definitely, definitely there are lots of farmers engaged in the conversation," says Jesse Vollmer, CEO of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based tech firm FarmLogs, an app use by some 50,000 U.S. farms to track rainfall on fields among other details.

Not every reaction has been entirely negative. "I've heard from other farmers saying they actually agree with some of the things he was saying about the analytical skills you need to have the modern world," Vollmer says. "But the way he described the [farming] process is being taken as a defamatory remark."

Part of the issue is that Bloomberg's comments overlook just how complex farming is today, says Bill Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada in Reno. "Our students are taking courses in genetics and molecular biology, advanced nutrition, which includes epigenetics, and other areas that are very much in the cutting edge," he notes.

But more significantly, Payne says, the remarks are yet another insult to a vital profession facing a talent shortage in part because of how often farmers are maligned by urbanites. "There are real consequences to this negative image, such as the one that Mayor Bloomberg projected right now," Payne says.

He explains, "The world population will jump from about 7 billion to 9 billion over the next 35 years. We've already got 1 billion hungry people and malnutrition is much higher than that. If we don't meet the challenges to produce enough food, the results would be terrifying. It means more violence and political instability. We need the best and brightest minds to address those technological challenges, but we're getting fewer people. And so ill-informed comments like this don't help us attract that talent or educate Americans on how they're fed and how the food is grown."

A Continuing Cloud

At first glance, the kerfuffle could be seen as just one of many engulfing Bloomberg since he rocketed into contention in the Democratic presidential race on the power of spending some $300 million and counting on TV advertisements and field organizing.

In the past week alone, besides for the farming comments, there have been those salacious headlines about expensively-settled sexual harassment lawsuits, the discovery or recirculation of years-old insults about black people and women and a renewed focus on allegedly racist policing and education policies, such as stop-and-frisk, during his time as New York City mayor. All of that provides opportunities for Bloomberg's rivals to undermine him with key Democratic constituencies in the upcoming primaries.

Yet should Bloomberg prevail as the party standard-bearer, it's the farming comments that may prove to have a longer shelf life. "If Trump tried to bring up the race or sexual misconduct stuff, Bloomberg can just say 'What about birtherism?' or 'What about Stormy Daniels?,' but with these farming remarks, there is no what-about to counter with," Redfield says.

Redfield continues, "Trump's narrative is that he represents the common man, the non-elitist. This fits right into the narrative that Bloomberg does not."

The political landscape is littered with candidate comments thought to be made at closed-door fundraising events that opponents seized upon, fairly or not. What's potentially more problematic about Bloomberg's statements on farming are that, unlike Obama's "cling to guns" remark, Romney's 47 percent slam or even Clinton's reference to "deplorables," Bloomberg didn't make them in a private setting with his guard down. He also has not, since the video emerged, offered any clarifying statements to show he understands how much a part of the information technology world agriculture is these days.

Instead, Sheekey, his campaign manager, went on the offense against Sanders and his supporters—voters Bloomberg would someday need if he won the nomination—by suggesting that Sanders and Trump were "bros" who use the same campaign tactics to mar Bloomberg's image.

"In just the past three months, Mike has traveled to 26 states," a statement from the Bloomberg campaign said. "During that time, he has met with farmers and heard directly about the struggles they face. The Bernie Sanders campaign is choosing to push out falsehoods and sow divisions within the Democratic Party."

Should Bloomberg win the nomination, on-the-fence rural voters who might otherwise be persuaded to go blue, might react negatively, Redfield and others believe. Democrats showed in 2018 that a potentially decisive slice of these voters, which have favored the GOP in recent years and went big for Trump in 2016, are open to voting against Republicans. According to a McClatchy analysis, Democrats had a net gain of 6 percentage points in rural areas versus 2016 as some conservative voters were turned off by Trump's personal behavior as well as the negative impact on farmers of his trade wars with China.

"It makes it more difficult for [Bloomberg] in Michigan, in Wisconsin, to hold on to Minnesota, in that you've got something that looks patronizing, it looks out of touch, it's something that can be exploited, particularly by a general election opponent." Redfield says. "It doesn't have to turn people into Trump voters. It just has to turn them into non-Bloomberg voters."

Even in the primary process, rural voters who are Democrats and progressives —such as some owners of organic farms and growers who work to provide product for environmentally conscious consumers—can be a relevant bloc in farm-heavy Super Tuesday states where Bloomberg will finally face voters next week.

"People who live in rural America are very proud of our heritage and what we do to provide a safe and abundant food supply for the country," says Duane Smuts, who runs his family's 3,000-acre corn, soybean and winter wheat farm in south-central Michigan.

Smuts, 44, an independent, says he is considering voting for a Democrat in November and also plans to cast a ballot in his state's Democratic primary on March 10. He's not revealing who'll get his vote but his comments hint at who it won't be. "[Bloomberg's] comments can be taken negatively and will affect votes," Smuts says. "I take a step back when somebody in a powerful role wants to tell the rest of America that he can teach them how to farm."

Steve Friess is a Newsweek contributor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter at @SteveFriess.

Correction Feb. 20, 2020, 1:56 p.m.: An earlier version of this story misstated the relationship between Mike Pence and John Pence. John Pence is the vice president's nephew, not his son.