Michael Bloomberg had not lost an election since November 2003, when New York City voters resoundingly rejected a referendum he spent millions of dollars promoting to make elections here nonpartisan affairs, with no listing of party affiliation.
The following morning, he was addressing reporters at a firehouse on Liberty St. when WNBC-TV’s Gabe Pressman asked him, “Why do you think you lost?” The then-Mayor replied, “I didn’t lose at all Gabe,” even as his face grew increasingly flushed and the rising intensity of his voice told a different story.
A spokesman for the State Democratic Party poured a bucket of salt on that wound by calling it “a day when New Yorkers woke up and realized the emperor has no clothes. The Mayor has no base. The influence of his money has waned as people have gotten to know him.”
That spokesman, Howard Wolfson, would later become a Bloomberg Deputy Mayor, and was a top adviser and campaign spokesman in the presidential run that came to a screeching halt when the only primary he won March 3 was in American Samoa. Mr. Bloomberg has had a habit of adding to his payroll aides who initially showed a knack for hitting the jugular at his expense: Stu Loeser, who did opposition research for Mark Green’s 2001 mayoral campaign, also made the transition to top mayoral aide and then key player in the presidential run.
‘No Viable Path to Nomination’
The margins Mr. Bloomberg lost by in the 14 Super Tuesday states March 3 weren’t as wide as for his defeat on nonpartisan elections, but he found it easier to concede the morning after, saying in a statement, “After yesterday’s results, the delegate math has become virtually impossible—and a viable path to the nomination no longer exists.”
He had perceived that path opening to him last fall after Joe Biden faltered in the early debates and had trouble raising money for his campaign even as—except for a brief surge by Elizabeth Warren in late summer—he maintained his status as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
It didn’t matter to Mr. Bloomberg that it had been nearly 20 years since he left the party to seek the Republican nomination for Mayor, or that he continued supporting GOP candidates in races ranging from State Senate to President even after he left the party and ran for a third mayoral term in 2009 as an independent. He could point to his strong support of issues like gun control, coping with climate change and abortion rights that were popular with Democratic voters, as well as the $121 million he spent in the 2018 congressional midterm elections that helped 21 moderate candidates unseat Republican incumbents as the party regained control of the House.
That amounted to a down-payment on his rationale for the party to choose him once he swooped into the campaign in midstream over others who had paid their dues over decades: he was rich enough to outspend President Trump and the national Republic apparatus and sufficiently ruthless to be a match for the incumbent in a battle of titans of industry. More than a match, if you considered that the former Mayor had actually been a successful businessman, as opposed to someone whose most-notable private-sector success had been in playing one on a reality TV show.
But Mr. Bloomberg’s money—and his pledge that, if he failed to get the Democratic nomination, he would spend it on whoever did in order to defeat Mr. Trump—couldn’t guarantee him deference from the other contenders, particularly Ms. Warren and Bernie Sanders, who treated him as a corporate raider attempting a hostile takeover of the party.
And his high-handed operating style at both Bloomberg LP and as Mayor had made him an easy discard in a Democratic race for two of the party’s prime constituencies: women and black voters. Senator Warren carved him up like a holiday turkey over his wise-guy remarks about the physical appearance of some women and the jock culture that existed at his corporation that produced a string of nondisclosure agreements with women who had left jobs there.
And while Mr. Bloomberg persuaded some African-American leaders to endorse him based on his philanthropy and a bankroll that would make him formidable against Mr. Trump—reportedly South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn considered backing him before Mr. Biden’s strong debate performance in that state four days before its primary persuaded him to give the former Vice President what may prove the most important vote of the campaign—he never quite allayed the distrust he created with the overuse of stop-and-frisk.
The then-Mayor’s stubbornly strident defense of a tactic that had been abused by the NYPD on his watch continued even after a directive from his Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, to cops that they should forget about quantity and focus on quality stops sharply reduced them at the same time that the drop in crime continued. For a man who insisted he was guided by data rather than assumptions and prejudices, it made no sense. It became such an albatross around Mr. Bloomberg’s neck that he felt compelled to apologize for its overuse—more than six years after a Federal Judge ruled the NYPD had applied the tactic unconstitutionally, and he had the bright idea to respond by accusing her of knowing nothing about policing—just before he officially announced his primary run.
“He couldn’t get any momentum,” political consultant George Arzt said shortly after Mr. Bloomberg withdrew from the race, noting that the apology had not put an end to questions from the media and his Democratic rivals that followed him along the campaign trail. “He couldn’t get the black vote, and you can’t win without the black vote in the Democratic primary.”
One of Mr. Bloomberg’s longtime aides, Kevin Sheekey, had publicly argued prior to the South Carolina primary that Mr. Biden was among the moderate candidates who should withdraw from the race to clear a lane for his boss to compete one-on-one with Mr. Sanders. But the former Vice President’s 28-point victory in that primary gave him the momentum heading into Super Tuesday that prompted Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar to end their campaigns and endorse him. Those moves and a spike in enthusiasm in the field that was reflected in fund-raising prompted Mr. Arzt to say, four hours before the first polls closed, “My feeling is there’s going to be a split today between Sanders and Biden.”
‘Texas Up for Grabs’
He wasn’t going on a hunch: polls released early in the day by Data for Progress showed Mr. Biden gaining throughout the South and Southwest and in Minnesota, where Ms. Klobuchar had led Mr. Sanders prior to dropping out. The gap between the two men in California had been sliced in half.
“Texas is up for grabs,” Mr. Arzt said. “Bloomberg wins only if Biden falters. If Biden is competitive, it becomes a two-person race.” He said it was possible that Mr. Sanders and Mr. Biden between them would account for all 14 states, and considering that the former Vice President had virtually no campaign operations in either Texas or California, if he kept his margins of defeat in those states in single digits, “If it’s 7-7 tonight it’s a victory for Biden.”
As it turned out, Mr. Bloomberg, whom polls showed leading in Arkansas and Oklahoma and with an outside shot of winning in North Carolina, underperformed in all three states, and exceeding expectations in both Colorado and California only got him third-place finishes in both.
In contrast, Mr. Biden outran the polls everywhere, not only stunning Mr. Sanders with a narrow win in Texas but winning Minnesota by a bigger margin than Ms. Klobuchar had been leading the Vermont Senator by before dropping out. He beat Mr. Sanders by 30 points in Virginia—where Data for Progress in late February showed him trailing by nine points—and snatched Massachusetts from Senator Warren on her own turf despite not campaigning there.
Mr. Bloomberg, who has always prided himself on being sufficiently pragmatic to accept unpleasant news and move on, said in his statement that he was exiting the race for the same reason he entered it: “to defeat Donald Trump—because it is clear to me that staying in would make achieving that goal more difficult.”
Mr. Arzt said that after the former Mayor’s disastrous performance in his first debate, when it was important for him to hold his own, “I never had any expectations for Bloomberg. He just wasted $500 million.”
If anything defied prediction, he said, it was the size of the margins Mr. Biden ran up in several key states—which contributed to a delegate haul that moved him ahead of Mr. Sanders when the conventional wisdom had been that he would be fortunate to come out just 100 delegates behind.
And, Mr. Arzt added, “I didn’t expect him to take Texas.”
Couldn’t Sell Himself
One Biden aide, who prior to South Carolina had been pondering an offer from the Bloomberg camp to join it for more money if his candidate was forced to drop out, said shortly after the former Mayor withdrew that the results the night before had been “surprising even by my standards.”
The most-logical explanation for the startling change of fortunes after Mr. Bloomberg got into the race promising to be the knight in gilded armor—saving the country from both a socialist like Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump—was that he couldn’t make a credible case for himself. A man whose fortune stemmed as much from his salesmanship as his mastery of technology had been unable to close the deal with the voters because his ad campaign couldn’t hide the flaws in the product he was pitching.
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