The reviews are in: Mike Bloomberg bombed.
Internet tricksters edited his Wikipedia entry and declared the former New York City mayor dead after Wednesday night’s debate — “Cause of death: Senator Elizabeth Warren” — while more serious observers of the political scene found his first appearance onstage with his rivals stiff, at times stumbling, and generally underwhelming.
But was it fatal to his presidential aspirations? Sure, his entire candidacy rests on an argument that he alone can defeat President Trump, and he definitely didn’t beat anyone in that debate. On the other hand, the media mogul, who is entirely self-financing his campaign, still has about $60 billion on his side.
“He can recover from it. I assume that he’ll get better,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist based in Los Angeles. “His great strength is he’s not going to suffer some fund-raising drought because of a bad performance. He’ll just keep transferring money into his campaign account.”
“He was just warming up,” Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, said in a statement after the debate, spinning the attacks on his boss as a sign the three-term mayor is “a winner.”
Note, dear reader, he did not say “the winner.”
Bloomberg’s virgin voyage on the national presidential stage hasn’t made his course to the nomination any smoother, and served to highlight his vulnerability on questions about his past remarks about women and his policies that affected people of color while he was mayor. The pummeling he took lacerated the sheen of electability he’d built around himself with his omnipresent ads, colossal campaign apparatus, and bottomless war chest.
Despite the debate’s high TV ratings — averaging nearly 20 million total viewers across NBC and MSNBC and millions more online — several strategists said the candidates’ two-hour tangle may not hurt Bloomberg’s standing with voters in the states blitzed by his $400 million-and-counting worth of ads.
Outside of states like New Hampshire, where the majority of voters are very engaged, “it isn’t clear [debates] can kill you because not enough people watch,” said Matt Bennett, an executive with Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington.
But Bloomberg’s debate performance likely wounded the 78-year-old in the eyes of party elites, who had begun to view him as the potential moderate white knight to save the party from nominating Senator Bernie Sanders, said Brian Fallon, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton. Many establishment players worry that the self-described democratic socialist is too far left to win the general election against Trump, and their alarm has risen along with Sanders’ poll numbers and delegate count.
Their backing could be crucial if the nomination ends up being decided at the convention if no single candidate amasses enough delegates to secure it outright, he said.
After former vice president Joe Biden’s disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, those Democratic Party elites have been shopping for a more centrist figure to rally around, said Fallon. “In their imaginations they were starting to picture Bloomberg, and last night, I think, punctured that daydream.”
It wasn’t just Bloomberg’s lackluster delivery. It was the blood drawn by rivals’ attacks on him over his record on race and treatment of women that left him looking deeply vulnerable on key issues to Democratic voters, Fallon said.
Those blows included criticism over his previous support for stop-and-frisk policies that discriminated against Black and brown residents of New York City. On that and other predictable attacks, Bloomberg did not have a crisp response at the ready.
Also damaging was the broadside Warren launched over his alleged derogatory comments about women over the years. She also cornered Bloomberg with her request that he release women who used to work at his company from nondisclosure agreements signed as part of harassment and gender discrimination settlements. Bloomberg has not been accused of physically assaulting any women.
“None of them accuse me of doing anything other than, maybe they didn’t like a joke I told,” Bloomberg said, eliciting boos from the audience. He said he would not be releasing any of the former employees from the agreements.
Bloomberg’s response “came eerily close” to Trump’s dismissal of his infamous “Access Hollywood” tape comments as “locker room talk,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "He certainly didn’t put himself apart from Donald Trump on issues of misogyny or understanding around sexual harassment.”
Not surprisingly, Bloomberg’s political rivals pounced on the newcomer’s performance.
“Bloomberg had the worst debate performance in presidential debate history,” the campaign of rival moderate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., declared in a memo Thursday. It suggested Bloomberg should drop out of the race so he doesn’t risk preventing Buttigieg from stopping Sanders.
"I’ll bet he’s reaching in his pocket and spending $100 million more on advertising to try to erase everyone’s memory of what happened last night,” Warren said during an appearance Thursday on ABC’s “The View.”
Trump, whom Bloomberg has needled endlessly since getting into the race in November, gleefully returned the favor Thursday. Quoting Bloomberg’s statement from the debate that he doesn’t think Sanders can beat Trump, the president told “Mini” Bloomberg via Twitter that “there’s even less chance, especially after watching your debate performance last night, of you winning the Democrat nomination . . . But I hope you do!”
Carrick, the California strategist, said Bloomberg had fallen victim to the same Achilles’ heel that plagues all self-funded wealthy candidates. Bloomberg built up an advertising-driven image — then the reality didn’t match the polished candidate from the ads, he said. "It raises questions right off the bat.”
Nonetheless, Bloomberg and his immense campaign stuck to the script Thursday. He smacked back at Trump on Twitter. He campaigned in Utah, which votes with 13 other states on March 3, Super Tuesday. His campaign rolled out more endorsements, and filed a breathtaking report with the Federal Election Commission that showed, among other things, that he has spent more than $400 million of his own fortune on his campaign so far, including a whopping $220 million just in January.
But even the bajillion-dollar spin machine at Bloomberg’s back could not frame his first debate as any sort of victory.
“So how was your night last night?” Bloomberg cheekily asked the crowd at his Utah event Thursday. Then he launched into an attack against Sanders sharper than he delivered the night before. “Look, the real winner of the debate last night was Donald Trump. Because I worry that we may be on the way to nominating someone who cannot win in November. If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base — like Senator Sanders — it will be a fatal error.”