MANASSAS, VA - MARCH 02: Democratic presidential candidate, former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg participates in a Fox News town hall held at the Hilton Performing Arts Center at George Mason on March 2, 2020 in Manassas, VA. Mr. Bloomberg appeared in the FOX News Town Hall co-moderated by Special Report's Bret Baier alongside The Story's Martha MacCallum the evening before voting starts on Super Tuesday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Bloomberg delivers speech after suspending his campaign
01:58 - Source: CNN
West Palm Beach, Florida CNN  — 

The warning signs around Mike Bloomberg’s campaign started flashing in early February. And by Tuesday night, it was clear that all the money in the former New York mayor’s bank account couldn’t save his sinking campaign.

By the time he made his late entry into the Democratic primary race last November, Bloomberg knew that his only shot at winning the nomination was to outspend everyone. Over the next four months, the former New York mayor did just that, plowing more than a half billion dollars of his own fortune into television ads, and hundreds of millions more on building the biggest field operation of any campaign.

Everything about Bloomberg’s campaign was unprecedented. No one had ever spent that much or gotten in so late. His whole strategy hinged on Super Tuesday. The 14-state contest would either prove Bloomberg’s audacious plan could work, or it would end up as one of the most expensive failures in modern political history.

But Bloomberg’s downturn began weeks earlier, as his lengthy record became a focal point at the February 19 debate in Las Vegas. His support for tough policing tactics as mayor of New York City, along with lewd remarks he’d allegedly made to employees at his company, gave Bloomberg’s opponents ample fodder for attacks. And other candidates, led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, seized on it.

From the opening minutes, the decision to debate looked like the wrong one. Bloomberg appeared lost when attacked, and struggled to hit back against any of his competitors. Advisers in New York watched in horror as Warren landed the biggest blows.

By the time Bloomberg took the stage in South Florida on Tuesday night, it was obvious the harrowing month had all but stalled the former New York mayor. Though the audience, lubricated by free wine and beer, and full of bite-sized burgers and flatbreads, gave Bloomberg a hero’s welcome, his first lines acknowledged the disaster.

“No matter how many delegates we win tonight, we have done something no one else thought was possible,” Bloomberg said. “In just three months, we have gone from 1% in the polls to be a contender for the Democratic nomination for president.”

After a roughly 10-minute speech, Bloomberg left the Florida convention center, flying home to New York City to reassess his campaign. On Wednesday morning, he left his Upper East Side apartment without offering a hint of what was to come.

Less than an hour later, the billionaire was no longer a presidential candidate.

The beginning of the end

Bloomberg’s poor debate performance exposed what many advisers had worried were his lackluster campaign chops, not to mention his lengthy history as a Republican politician – and the positions that came with that. Along with his stop and frisk issues, and the lewd remarks he’d allegedly made, Bloomberg also had to contend with critical comments he made about Obamacare, the sweeping health care policy passed by former President Barack Obama.

Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during a break in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Aides tried to spin the poor performance as Bloomberg just warming up to the format, touting the fact that the others on stage had been hardened by debates and town halls over the last year.

But the sheen had been taken off and the voters were exposed to the fact that the man they saw in omnipresent ads may not be the same as the one who took the debate stage.

Over the following weeks, campaign advisers looked to position Bloomberg as the only manager in the race and seized on the rise of coronavirus as an example of the kind of issue Bloomberg would tackle as a candidate. They even paid to air a three-minute ad on CBS and NBC on a Sunday night, playing up Bloomberg as the best prepared candidate to be president.

Then came South Carolina.

Biden’s initial struggles were part of Bloomberg’s rationale for getting into the race in the first place. That strategy looked smart as Biden faltered through the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada. But when the former vice president ran away with the South Carolina primary, it set off a chain of events that ultimately left Bloomberg with no real path to the nomination.

Within 48 hours of his resounding win, money and endorsements poured into the Biden campaign. And the field suddenly cleared. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out and threw their support his way in an Avengers-like pair of events in Dallas.

In the eyes of multiple top Bloomberg aides, that was the turning point. A resurgent Biden undercut their candidate’s entire rationale for entering the race.

By Tuesday morning, some Bloomberg aides were already nervous about the potential for disaster that night.

Super Tuesday debacle

The first bad sign came from Virginia. The state was seen favorably by Bloomberg’s campaign. They had a sizable team on the ground, had spent nearly $18 million on TV and digital ads there, and the former mayor had a wealth of goodwill built up after spending millions to help flip the state legislature to Democrats in 2019.

Before South Carolina, Bloomberg’s internal polling had him in a three-way tie in Virginia with Biden and Sanders. But within a few minutes of the polls closing on Tuesday night, Biden was declared the winner, and ended up carrying Virginia by 30 points.

Biden’s upward trajectory in the mayor’s internal polling was so rapid that “even 12-hour old polls were out of date,” said one Bloomberg adviser. “It was an unprecedented move,” the adviser said.

A week earlier, Bloomberg’s team believed they would be competitive across much of the southern states, aides said, including North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

By the end of the night, Biden had won all five contests, swamping the billionaire.

It’s “an extraordinary shift,” said a Bloomberg staffer. “I’ve never seen an avalanche like that.”

A candidate unto himself

Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks during a campaign rally at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

From the outset, Bloomberg’s strategy was to operate in a universe onto himself, not part of the everyday stories of Democratic primary but not fully in a race against Trump. For a short time, the plan worked, and Bloomberg’s ubiquitous ads caught Trump’s attention, as the two traded Twitter insults.

But in the end, the strategy appears to have hurt Bloomberg, a candidate who, by focusing on someone he wasn’t running against, seemed to forget about the actual race he was in. It didn’t help that Bloomberg proved to be a lackluster campaigner. His prepared speeches and choreographed events obscured his lack of rhetorical agility. He almost never took questions from the audience and engaged with them rarely.

Bloomberg’s advantage was always going to be his shock and awe spending strategy.

When he announced in November, Bloomberg’s team described how he planned to place at least $40 million worth of television advertising over the first two weeks of his campaign. Within the first few weeks, Bloomberg had already outspent the rest of the field.

As Bloomberg blanketed the airwaves over the next four months, critics complained that he was trying to buy the election. In the end, Bloomberg spent over $570 million on television, radio and digital ads, more than five times what the four other candidates who competed in the Super Tuesday states spent throughout their entire campaigns.

The numbers for Biden alone are staggering. By the time Bloomberg endorsed the former vice president on Wednesday, Biden had spent just 2% of the more than half a billion dollars Bloomberg spent on ads.

“So much food”

But Bloomberg’s spending went beyond just television spots and podcast ads.

The mayor quickly built a staff of over 2,400 people, offering a range of veteran Democratic aides and organizers big salaries and free housing, while also guaranteeing his field staff job security through November.

Office workers are seen in the Bloomberg campaign headquarters near Times Square on January 30, 2020

The campaign also spent big on rent for their 200-plus offices across the country, including more than 100 just in Super Tuesday states. According to one aide, Bloomberg’s team paid around $44,000 a month for just one office in Charlotte, North Carolina, an opulent expense that most campaigns wouldn’t even consider spending on a state-based office.

Bloomberg’s New York headquarters resembled that of a swanky financial data company, much like the one the former mayor ran for years. The campaign, every Friday, had a staff meeting that included an open bar, aides said, an unheard of expense on any other campaign. Free food was everywhere, including a weekly Taco Tuesday and regular catered lunches.

“So much food,” joked one Bloomberg aide after the campaign ended. “How will I adjust?”

The scope of Bloomberg’s campaign was most apparent in American Samoa, the only contest the billionaire won during his short-lived campaign. Bloomberg had an astonishing seven staffers on the South Pacific island, more than the six total national delegates the US territory will award and more than Biden’s campaign had on the ground in Virginia.

The spending also reshaped the race for other candidates who couldn’t come close to competing with what the Bloomberg campaign was doing.

Michael Halle, a senior adviser to Buttigieg’s campaign, said Bloomberg’s spending “devalued early states, where candidates have to rely on more than name ID and TV advertisements to create a media obsession that was in fact a fallacy.”

“In the critical period of time between Iowa and Nevada, after Pete Buttigieg scored a historic victory in Iowa and photo finish in New Hampshire,” Halle said. “Mike Bloomberg received, quantitatively, more attention despite not having one a single delegate.”

That point was not lost on Bloomberg’s top aides, many of whom worried that one electoral misstep could prove disastrous for Bloomberg because of how the mayor banked on winning the electability argument.

“When you base your whole campaign on electability,” a Bloomberg aide said on Wednesday, “you really only get one shot.”

And, now it seems, the former New York mayor squandered his.

CNN’s Dana Bash, Caroline Kenny and Cristina Alesci contributed to this report.