Entering the final week before Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, it was hard to walk down the Las Vegas Strip without running into Democratic officials, strategists, and campaign staffers. Often, when I’d begin talking with them, they would shake their heads or shrug, clearly trying hard to fight off a sense of fatalism about the rise of Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg. Is this really going to be the endgame?, staffers and supporters of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar wondered aloud, in moments of candor, as we stood on sidewalks, looked for hotel coffee, or lingered at overcrowded casino bars. After all of that? What had looked like a wide open, four- or five-way race just a few weeks ago now seemed to the political pros to be thoroughly blocked off from two directions — on the one side by a waterfall of cash, and on the other by a stubborn political “revolution.”
Sanders’s enviable electoral position was terrifying for many of them, but it wasn’t that hard to accept: Bernie had been fighting his way toward it for a year, if not five. But the other Democratic candidates and their top campaign workers nursed a special disdain for Bloomberg and his late, presumptuous, preposterously well-funded entry to the race. Still, the contempt was often accompanied by a sense of near-resignation — it was more a grim reality than a realistic action item.
In the days leading up to the Las Vegas debate though, many of these Democrats began to consider the idea that Wednesday’s forum might be their best shot at taking Bloomberg down, one way or another. But the certainty of a multiple-candidate pile-on didn’t become real until Wednesday morning when a Bloomberg campaign memo began circulating. The document argued “this is now a three-candidate race between [Bloomberg], Sanders, and Trump,” and that the others should step aside for the former mayor, or else risk handing the nomination to Sanders. By the time members of Bloomberg’s campaign team landed in the media filing center at Bally’s later in the day and began introducing themselves to rival staffers and reporters early that evening, the other campaigns regarded them with something close to fury. This was obvious almost immediately onstage, as Warren ripped into him from the start and Bloomberg withered under an uncharacteristically harsh spotlight for a primary that’s so far been short on such attacks. His stuttering attempts to brush past questions about nondisclosure agreements his company had signed with women employees, his stop and frisk policy, and his support for Republicans were almost painful to watch at times. Shortly after the debate, his campaign’s attempt at a positive spin was that it took him 45 minutes to “get his legs on the stage” because he hadn’t debated in nearly a decade.
The plan to tear down Bloomberg so viciously during his national debut in a non-controlled environment (like his ads) was a late calculation for most campaigns. But those same once-discouraged campaign pros working for Bloomberg’s non-Sanders rivals now see it as a glowing success. In its aftermath, they perceive a new sliver of opportunity in the race. And in the days since, multiple campaigns have reoriented components of their messaging and voter-targeting programs to take advantage of Bloomberg’s public stumble, which they universally view as a clear sign that he won’t be consolidating the anti-Sanders vote anytime soon, after all.
Buttigieg’s campaign, for one, shot a memo of its own back in Bloomberg’s direction on Thursday, calling on the New Yorker to get out of the former South Bend mayor’s way, since he was the one leading the anti-Sanders charge. And while Elizabeth Warren’s team doesn’t see her winning over Bloomberg’s precise slice of the electorate in the short run, it’s now zeroing in on especially pointed criticism of the billionaire to get her back into the national conversation and at the front of mind for voters wary of his money’s influence — and not just the Sanders-leaning progressives she’d been pursuing. “I believe he should drop out now,” former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, a top Warren supporter, told me. “He should drop out and instead invest those resources on helping to take back the Senate and supporting the nominee, who I believe will be Elizabeth Warren, instead of on a vanity campaign that I believe is not going to win.”
Though Warren had expressed deep misgivings with Bloomberg’s candidacy for months, her team only decided to turn the bulk of her fire toward him in recent weeks, as she struggled for cash and attention after disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Warren’s top lieutenants watched with interest as some of her outside allies pushed to get Bloomberg on the debate stage — sure it would expose his weaknesses — but they didn’t fully join in themselves, and Warren herself even tweeted disapprovingly about his qualification. After the first two states voted, however, and Warren’s position in the race looked precarious, they decided to try becoming Bloomberg’s foil. “He represents, in so many ways, the polar opposite of Elizabeth Warren: Whereas she has built her career on holding Wall Street accountable and helping everyday families, the New York Times once described him as the foremost defender of Wall Street,” said Castro. But his candidacy also represented “a golden opportunity for Senator Warren,” in his words, because after she made clear she would treat Bloomberg as a stand-in for Donald Trump, she could use a strong debate performance to reposition herself in Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar-curious voters’ minds: She could be the Sanders alternative, too.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Biden’s team has been building up its anti-Bloomberg program for weeks — steadily increasing the amount of research and messaging resources dedicated to him behind closed doors — seeing him as an obvious threat but a shockingly easy target whose turn in the spotlight would lighten the attacks on the former vice president. Heading into the debate, Biden sought to position himself as the preeminent anti-Sanders candidate onstage by nodding to the Vermonter’s guns record, but also to stop Bloomberg’s encroachment on his base of black voters by pointing out his stop-and-frisk history and his complicated relationship with Barack Obama. After the debate, Biden’s team saw Bloomberg as sufficiently weakened that it could turn its attention back to Sanders, amplifying Biden’s onstage message the following day by publishing a video of Sanders saying “I don’t know that you hold a gun manufacturer responsible” on the morning of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, and then holding a press conference on the issue.
It’s still not clear, of course, if Bloomberg’s widely watched embarrassment could tank or even significantly dent his candidacy. Over and over this cycle, voter reactions to the debates have diverged widely from pundit expectations (just ask Kamala Harris). Bloomberg, anyway, has enough money to double, or triple, or quadruple down on his ads and in-state investments. And his aides, of course, have insisted that nothing much has changed, that he’ll be better prepared for next week’s debate in Charleston, and that the main point outlined in their memo still stands: “As the race stands today, Sanders is poised to leave Super Tuesday with an over-400 delegate lead versus his next closest competitor (MRB) — a likely insurmountable advantage. MRB is the clear No. 2 in the race based on vote share,” it reads. “If Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar remain in the race despite having no path to appreciably collecting delegates on Super Tuesday (and beyond), they will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead by siphoning votes away from MRB.” In the meantime, they’re getting the mayor more debate practice time: He’s reshuffling his schedule to accommodate more prep, and he agreed to participate in a CNN town hall for the first time.
The ground around them, however, has shifted. “If the dynamics of the race did not dramatically change, Democrats could end up coming out of Super Tuesday with Bernie Sanders holding a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead,” Buttigieg’s campaign agreed in its own internal memo the next day. But the former South Bend mayor is the only one taking on Sanders directly, the document argues. And “Bloomberg had the worst debate performance in presidential debate history and showed he can’t handle Sanders, let alone Donald Trump. If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he can not offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead siphoning votes away from Pete, the current leader in delegates.”
Sanders’s team agrees. His top aides’ broad smiles were visible across the spin room on Wednesday night.