The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did the Bloomberg campaign stack the debate audience with supporters? Doesn’t appear so.

Apparently not.

Mike Bloomberg raises his hand during the debate in Charleston, S.C. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

There’s not much doubt that the campaign team powering former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Democratic presidential bid is aware that last week’s debate in Nevada didn’t go well for their candidate. During the debate Tuesday evening in Charleston, S.C., Bloomberg seemed a bit better prepared than he had been then, a sign that his team had perhaps impressed upon him the need to do better.

But, just to hedge their bets, they had an obvious backstop. During the first commercial break of the debate, some markets, including New York City, showed an ad for Bloomberg’s campaign. Sure, the candidate himself was still fumbling a bit in offering even his go-to lines. But voters could still hear Bloomberg’s polished, edited pitch for the relatively low price of a network TV spot. For a campaign that already has spent half a billion dollars, that’s hardly an expense at all.

Those watching the debate, though, suddenly noticed another way in which Bloomberg was unexpectedly being bolstered. At times, the debate audience interjected with boisterous applause when Bloomberg spoke, including when he mentioned a gun-control group he had founded. At other times, the audience booed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the candidate Bloomberg clearly sees as a primary opponent (understandably, given the polling).

It was a level of energy on Bloomberg’s behalf that’s somewhat at odds with his political personality. Bloomberg’s appeal isn’t centered on his charisma, an obvious observation for those watching the debate. He’s not actively campaigning in South Carolina, either, focusing instead on Super Tuesday next week. And yet there was a loud cadre of people who had finagled tickets just to cheer on their guy?

One might be forgiven for being somewhat skeptical that those attendees hadn’t been paid by the Bloomberg campaign for their presence and energy. This is a campaign, after all, that paid Instagram influencers to bolster his candidacy. The campaign paying people to send regular text messages to their friends promoting Bloomberg’s candidacy. The campaign that saw dozens of supporters’ Twitter accounts turned off this week after they participated in coordinated pro-Bloomberg messaging. It would not really be surprising if this same campaign hired people to offer the applause that was missing during his first debate performance.

As the debate moved forward, people on social media started passing around an article published this month by a local television station, WCSC-TV. According to that article, the Charleston County Democratic Party was guaranteeing tickets to the debate only to debate sponsors — at prices ranging from $1,750 to $3,200. Or, in other words, at a cost that Bloomberg could afford 20 million times over.

The article didn’t allege that this is actually what Bloomberg did. Lillian Donahue, the WCSC reporter who revealed the ticket-pricing plan, explained in an email to The Post what she’d learned from her reporting.

“What I was told from the Charleston County and S.C. Dem. parties is that the campaigns would be given a portion of tickets to disperse among supporters,” she wrote. “But they didn’t explain who got tickets, how many went to each campaign and how the campaigns would choose to pass them out.”

Seven of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates shared the stage in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25 in the last debate ahead of the South Carolina primary. (Video: The Washington Post)

Donahue followed up for more information, but the party wasn’t responsive. She noted that the county party’s debate website was later changed, with a button promoting sponsorship of the debate removed after her story was published. (Other events still listed on that page still include “get tickets” buttons. Attending a debate watch party and after-party would run you a $75 or $50 contribution apiece.) The chairman of the county party insisted during Donahue’s original report that such funding structures were how debates in other cities also were run.

A spokesperson for the party denied on Twitter that campaigns had stacked the room.

“Candidates get the same amount of tickets,” Xochitl Hinojosa wrote. “No one is packing the debate hall.”

In response to a question from The Post, a campaign spokesperson listed the 15 people who had been given the Bloomberg campaign’s tickets. Three were organizers for the campaign. Three were volunteers. Most of the others were current or former elected officials.

It’s important to note that Bloomberg wasn’t the only obvious beneficiary of loud applause. Former vice president Joe Biden seemed to also get a lopsided amount of support — though he’s leading in polling in the state. There seemed to be more applause in general than in past debates, perhaps prompting questions about who was there in the first place.

In other words, while Bloomberg’s campaign did have vocal support in the room, it doesn’t seem to be the case that it cost the campaign any money. (A follow-up email asking if any additional supporters were in the room wasn‘t answered by the time of publication.) The default assumption that pro-Bloomberg voices must have been cashing Bloomberg checks is not an assumption that arises without justification, but, here, it seems to be wrong.

Instead, the campaign laid out money to boost Bloomberg’s message the old-fashioned way: with yet another TV spot.