So where is Michael Bloomberg supposed to go from here?
The former mayor and his campaign have told anyone who’d listen since November that their plan to win the Democratic nomination started, and largely relied, on Super Tuesday. And as voting began in the presidential primary a month ago — and the party looked set for an ugly, muddled struggle for the nomination after Iowa — everything appeared like it was going according to plan. At campaign headquarters, operatives each day pass countdown clocks ticking toward March 3, the day they planned to swoop into the race. Even after his disastrous first debate in Las Vegas, staffers unfailingly pointed to Tuesday, the date with the most delegates up for grabs of the whole primary, as the day everything would start coming together for him.
But that plan was always based on Joe Biden continuing to falter, and the moderate wing of the party lining up behind the tycoon to stop Bernie Sanders. And now, hours before polls open from Virginia to Texas to California — with Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar both exiting the race since Biden’s romp in South Carolina jump-started his campaign — election forecasts have Bloomberg running behind both the former vice-president and Sanders in Tuesday’s delegate count, and see no state as more likely to go for Bloomberg than the Vermont senator. Even the usually reticent architects of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign have started questioning what comes next: “Where’s the path for Bloomberg here?” asked David Axelrod on CNN on Saturday night, pointing to Biden’s strength, as David Plouffe, on MSNBC, argued the race is now essentially a Biden versus Sanders head-to-head.
Back in midtown, some of Bloomberg’s top advisers were taken aback by the size of Biden’s win, but were quick to insist that it wouldn’t change the former mayor’s thinking about the contest: even if Biden looked like a new man, the post–South Carolina cash injection into his campaign wouldn’t make a difference in time to affect Tuesday’s contests. With so many ballots already banked in the early voting period, Biden’s bounce would likely be muted, Bloomberg staffers argued. Biden’s big South Carolina win could even prove useful to Bloomberg, some argued, since it slowed down Sanders’s roll toward the nomination. Anyway, with the race still shaping up to be a long scrap for delegates, Bloomberg would be unlikely to consider dropping out anytime soon unless Tuesday turned into a massive, unexpected disappointment, they said.
Invariably though they also offered some version of: But talk to us on Wednesday.
“The obvious discussion that everyone is having, which is not novel, is: It’s Bernie versus who? And what kind of consolidation do you get? Tuesday is dispositive,” said one congressman supporting Bloomberg. “There’s gonna be a lot of pressure to have one alternative to Bernie — if Bloomberg doesn’t have a solid Super Tuesday, there is going to be an enormous amount of pressure for him to step aside, [but] if Biden doesn’t have a huge Super Tuesday and Bloomberg outperforms him, I think there’s going to be a huge amount of pressure on Biden to have the realization.”
In recent days, Bloomberg’s team has taken to reassuring surrogates and allies that he is uniquely positioned to keep competing through the spring, unlike others (like, say, Biden). “We, from jump street, understood this was a delegate race, [that’s why] we have teams on the ground in 43 states and across all 165 congressional districts on Super Tuesday,” said Dan Kanninen, the campaign’s states director. “Tuesday is a big day — it’s a third of the electorate in terms of delegate apportionment — but there’s also two-thirds left to come after Tuesday.”
“As a general statement, it’s fair to say our best states are later in the calendar rather than early in the calendar. Super Tuesday is front-loaded for Bernie, especially with California,” Kanninen continued, pointing to states like New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Maryland as opportunities for Bloomberg to pick up huge delegate troves. He also argued that Bloomberg will gain strength as he competes strongly in states that will be central to the general election, like Michigan. “Later in the contest there are states that we think we’ll do quite well in.”
Yet Bloomberg’s path to a victory before the Milwaukee convention — or a robust enough showing to keep him in contention if no one wins a delegate majority outright — has relied on positioning himself as the obvious moderate choice, and the field slimming accordingly. But that hasn’t happened so far: the most recent Los Angeles Times poll of California showed Bloomberg, Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all under the statewide delegate viability threshold, with only Sanders and Elizabeth Warren above it. (Other polls have shown Biden or Bloomberg hitting the 15 percent mark, and presumably Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s exits could further reshape this math.) This has led to significant angst among Democrats eager to back the strongest Sanders alternative. Nervous moderate Democratic members of the House walked into a caucus meeting last week hoping to talk about strategies for handling Sanders, but Nancy Pelosi refused to discuss the race, insisting on just walking them through the delegate rules, according to Democrats in the room.
With a contested convention still very much a possibility though, individual candidates are still weighing that possibility among their incentives. Warren’s team, for one, made the case on Sunday that after Tuesday no candidate will have a viable path to a delegate majority. Even Buttigieg’s camp was arguing until its final hours that he could stay in the race to complicate Sanders’ road ahead. “The whole line is if Bernie can get to his 1,991 delegates out of Super Tuesday, or it’s clear that’s the path, there will be a lot of pressure to consolidate,” explained the congressman. “But if it looks like there’s going to be a [brokered] convention, then no one’s gonna get out.”
And that likely includes Bloomberg, because while he may have similar political calculations as others, his financial calculus could hardly be more different. After all, candidates usually leave races because they run out of money, not political space.
“If you haven’t won anything through the first four and you don’t do particularly well on March third or March tenth, funders are going to start wandering,” said former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, a chairman of Bloomberg’s campaign, speaking prior to the vote in South Carolina.
Bloomberg, though, won’t have that problem, and his supporters are increasingly making that fact central to their explicit pitch, even as Biden raised $10 million within two days of winning South Carolina.
“The alternative to Trump has to be someone who can raise the resources, and that’s the bottom line,” said the congressman. “So that’s why Mike, to me, is the only option.”