The calls started early on a Thursday evening last month, moments after the New York Times reported Michael Bloomberg was expected to jump into the 2020 race. On one end were a handful of Joe Biden’s top campaign aides and allies; on the other were some of his highest-priority current and prospective donors. The former wanted to reassure the latter about Biden’s place in the race and to preempt any second thoughts about their loyalty to the former vice-president, according to Democrats familiar with the conversations.
It seemed clear, then, that the Biden team and, to a lesser extent, Pete Buttigieg’s had reason to be “very worried,” as one veteran Manhattan Democrat who is wired into Biden’s fund-raising orbit said to me that week. Bloomberg had reversed his springtime decision not to run after concluding that Biden was no longer well positioned to win the Democratic nomination and that no one else was sufficiently moderate and popular enough to beat Donald Trump. The former mayor wouldn’t take his wealthy friends’ money, but his candidacy might be reason enough for some of them to hold off on funding others — a possibility that Biden, struggling for cash, could hardly afford. Bloomberg, worth more than $54 billion according to Forbes, had essentially unlimited funds. He’d considered spending $1 billion on an independent bid in 2016, before abandoning the idea and returning to his role as one of the Democrats’ biggest donors. And now he was surprising not just the Democratic Party Establishment — he didn’t even give Barack Obama a heads-up and called DNC chair Tom Perez after the fact, according to operatives in the know — but also the Wall Street Establishment. At first, some of the calls from Biden’s allies went to voice-mail that Thursday night. Some donors told Biden World they needed time to think.
From the outside, Bloomberg looks to be off to a fast start. In just a few weeks, he has already reached 5 percent in multiple polls on the back of more than $60 million in ad spending — which is more than nearly the entire field of candidates has spent all year long. But in reality, Team Biden’s concerns might have been misplaced: It may just turn out, counterintuitively, that Bloomberg’s entering the race will serve to solidify donor support around Biden. “For a little while — for a week — there were some people who said, ‘Oh my God, he’s in! My dream come true! We’re with him!,’ ” says one Bloomberg ally in private equity who’s now backing Biden. “Then reality set in.”
At the very least, Bloomberg’s entry has coincided with a good few weeks financially for the front-runner. On Tuesday night, Biden ducked away from his ongoing Iowa bus tour for a pair of fund-raising receptions in New York. At the first, a 70-person gathering hosted in part by big finance names like Thomas H. Lee, Alan Patricof, Charles Myers, and Vincent Mai at the home of art dealer Arne Glimcher, Biden stood under a Calder mobile as he spoke. (“Don’t touch the Rothko!,” Patricof warned about the hanging canvases.) The candidate was buoyant. Just a day earlier, his campaign manager, Greg Schultz, had circulated an internal memo, which was then forwarded as talking-point guidance to supportive fund-raisers, revealing that the campaign had brought in “as much money in the first two months of this quarter as we raised in the WHOLE third quarter,” according to a copy obtained by New York. “The resources are important,” Schultz wrote, “but the timing really couldn’t be better.” The next day, Kamala Harris — another donor favorite — dropped out of the race.
It’s been a disorienting stretch for a group of donors who had spent months frantically trying to find the right candidate after Bloomberg first said he wouldn’t run in March. Many big donors were settling on Biden and Buttigieg. But former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who entered the race in November, almost immediately started setting up Manhattan meetings, including one at the office of Advent Capital Management president Tracy Maitland.
The past four weeks have left many Democrats on Wall Street who are accustomed to a measure of control over the primary process at an uncharacteristic loss. Their conundrum: Bloomberg’s run may not be the answer to their prayers that they expected it to be. Most of them like Bloomberg plenty, but he doesn’t need or want their help.
The party, more broadly, has been unnerved by the billionaire entrants scrambling the field. Tom Steyer and Bloomberg combined have plowed nearly half a billion dollars into Democratic politics in the past decade or so — money it now looks like they will use on themselves. Obama tried to calm everyone down, first reminding a few hundred leading donors and strategists at a conference in D.C., “Whoever emerges from the primary process, I will work my tail off to make sure they are the next president.” When the coverage of that speech focused instead on his warning that the candidates shouldn’t veer too far left, he tried again, at a smaller fund-raiser outside San Francisco the next week. “Everybody needs to chill about the candidates,” he told the second crowd.
Elizabeth Warren, in particular, has occupied a unique space in Wall Street Democrats’ collective mind, in part because of her obvious gains whenever one of them has picked a fight with her; she started selling BILLIONAIRE TEARS mugs around the time former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein griped on Twitter about being included in one of her ads. When Mother Jones reported that Barclays had recently warned clients that a Warren presidency would hurt Swiss banks, she responded on Twitter, “Fine by me.”
Bloomberg had been watching all this closely, and his inner circle ramped up its outreach to some Wall Street allies in the weeks before he made his 2020 intentions public. He was fully aware of the support he had from fellow magnates (even Jeff Bezos had encouraged him to run earlier this year), and now his longtime political strategist Kevin Sheekey and others on his team met with a handful of financial-industry operators to preview the run and their strategy, which is based largely on Biden’s losing steam, Buttigieg’s proving to be a weak option, and the race turning into a Bloomberg-vs.-Warren contest next spring, according to those briefed. Once the campaign launched, though, they felt no need to set up any formal system of communication with even those bankers and investors with decades of experience giving to presidential campaigns — a sharp contrast to Biden and Buttigieg and basically every other mainstream campaign in recent history.
It turned out to be finance types that, before long, had the most questions: about how Bloomberg was going to avoid just siphoning support from Biden and handing the race to Warren, or how his late entry wouldn’t at the very least ensure a messy, drawn-out nominating process.
And when Bloomberg’s bid lined up with a rough patch of polling for Warren, it made their fears of her running away with the nomination feel ancient and the rationale for his candidacy look less obvious. “We’re a long way from a few weeks ago, when the mood was ‘Elizabeth Warren is the nominee; we’re fucked. I can’t support this party anymore,’ ” explained a financial-industry pro close to both the Bloomberg and Biden teams. Biden set about ignoring Bloomberg in public while other candidates tried raising grassroots money off his entry. Behind the scenes, though, Biden’s fund-raising team insisted to donors that the former VP had found his footing in the race.
Bloomberg, however, isn’t much interested in what his old friends have to say. (“He literally has nothing to lose,” one associate said, “except maybe his reputation.”) He’s on pace to smash all campaign-spending records, and his ads are inescapable. But the ads’ content has let some Democrats exhale. Far from knocking down his primary opponents, the first of them focused on Trump. If Bloomberg’s unmatched cash is going to be devoted to launching the general election and ripping down Trump early, that will be hard even for Bloomberg’s rivals to complain about.
*This article appears in the November 25, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!