Mike Bloomberg got into the Democratic primary, in large part, to stop Bernie Sanders.
He may be doing the exact opposite.
Sanders, after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and with a slew of national polls showing him atop the field, is widely seen as the race’s front-runner. And yet it was Bloomberg who drew the bulk of the attacks when he made his debate debut on Wednesday, allowing Sanders to step off the Las Vegas stage largely unscathed.
This dynamic did not go unnoticed by a host of Democratic operatives, many of whom now believe Bloomberg’s campaign is helping – not hurting – Sanders’ quest to be the Democratic nominee.
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“It was dumb,” said Jennifer Palmieri, a longtime Democratic operative who most recently worked at Hillary Clinton’s communication director in 2016. “Anybody who doesn’t want Sanders to be the nominee should have spent way more time on Bernie and less on Bloomberg.”
Even more impactful is how Bloomberg’s poor performance – the former New York mayor struggled to defend himself from a host of attacks – actually helped elevate the other candidates on the stage, especially former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“The Bloomberg team came into this with intentions to not be a spoiler, but what needed to happen in order for their bid to matter is Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar all had to collapse,” Palmieri said. “None of them have collapsed … and they were all strengthened by his poor performance.”
Patti Solis Doyle, a longtime Democratic operative who ran Clinton’s 2008 campaign, put a finer point on it: “After Wednesday night, (Bloomberg) is helping Bernie. The alternative to Bernie has proven that he is not much of an alternative.”
She added: “Bloomberg was supposed to do three things and he failed at all of them. He was supposed to perform and show he could resonate with voters, that didn’t work. He was supposed to have an answer to his big issues… which he did not have an answer to. And finally he was supposed to frame the election between him and Sanders and he was not able to do that because he performed so badly.”
Bloomberg has for weeks largely operated outside the day-to-day scramble of the Democratic primary by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads and campaigning in a host of Super Tuesday states that the other candidates mostly couldn’t visit as they focused on contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
He is staking his campaign on the crucial contests that will happen on March 3, when over 34% of all delegates available in the nomination fight will be up for grabs.
But the former New York mayor, because of national polling, qualified for Wednesday’s debate and is now more of a presence in the race, even if he isn’t competing in Nevada or South Carolina.
It’s that timing that worries some: Instead of damaging the Vermont senator’s campaign, operatives – including those working on current campaigns – now worry that he will divide the anti-Sanders votes on Super Tuesday, dilute the share that the other candidates win and, in so doing, make Sanders’ haul of the over 1,300 delegates available even larger.
“His entrance into the race has prevented the solidification of the field and devalued the early states that actually test candidates,” said a senior Democratic operative affiliated with one of Bloomberg’s rivals. “Bloomberg is allowing this to remain fluid while Bernie has solidified with enough for viability everywhere on Super Tuesday.”
Galia Slayen, a Bloomberg spokesman, emphasized the campaign’s belief that the former mayor has broader appeal than Sanders.
“The stakes are too high in this election to choose a candidate who appeals to a small base like Senator Sanders,” Slayen said. “As Mike has said, nominating Sanders will be a fatal error. To beat Trump, we need Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to win. That was the coalition that propelled Democrats to success in the midterms – and it’s the coalition we will need to win in November.”
But the unfolding dynamic has not only been privately and publicly cheered by Sanders’ advisers, but one that they saw as a possibility months ago.
Pete D’Alessandro, a top adviser to Sanders in Iowa during both his presidential campaigns, said in January – before Bloomberg made the debate stage – that the race featured “more legitimate, qualified moderates” than many progressives expected and that their continued viability, deep into the primary season, was something Sanders’ team “kind of pray happens.”
“(Moderates) had more choices for once and they weren’t able to settle on just one to come out of it,” D’Alessandro said, adding that the ideal scenario for Sanders would be if the majority of the Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar cohort hovered around 15% – spreading out their support to the point “there is not going to be enough moderate folks to go around to stop us.”
D’Alessandro’s comments were prescient and now Democrats opposed to Sanders worry the scenario he laid out could be playing out in the next three weeks.
Sanders is poised to have a strong showing in Nevada, where most of the state’s operatives believe he will finish atop the caucus. But the Vermont senator’s biggest boon could come in early March, when delegate-rich states like California, Texas and Virginia are up for grabs.
Sanders even seems to be picking up on this dynamic – and has relished the fact that a man who represents the physical manifestation of the kind of enemy he has looked to stand up against for decades is now running against him.
In an interview with CNN after the debate, Sanders classified Bloomberg as a man who “initiated these horrific, racist polices in New York City of stop and frisk,” “opposed raising the minimum wage” and “called for the cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
“If Mr. Bloomberg thinks that is an agenda that is going to rally the American people,” Sanders said, “I think he is sorely, sorely mistaken.”
It’s an argument that is familiar to Sanders. But now, with Bloomberg in the race, the Vermont senator has perhaps his clearest – and easiest – contrast yet.
Sanders, speaking about his record of standing up to billionaires like Bloomberg, but an even finer point on it: “That is what I’ve been doing my entire life.”