The candidate wanted history to record that he was not finished, even as early results Tuesday showed his support collapsing and former vice president Joe Biden moving to consolidate the same electorate that Bloomberg had spent about $500 million of his own money to win.
After it was apparent that his dream of taking Super Tuesday by storm would never come to pass, Bloomberg refused to show disappointment. “Here’s what is clear: No matter how many delegates we win tonight, we have done something no one thought was possible,” he told a crowd of about 1,000 after Biden had won Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia. “In just three months, we’ve gone from 1 percent in the polls to being a contender for the Democratic nomination for president.”
That might have been an overstatement, given Bloomberg’s poor performance in many Super Tuesday states. Bloomberg set out to test whether a candidate can overwhelm his rivals with limited campaigning and unlimited spending. On the first day he actually appeared on a ballot, the answer was clearly no, and in coming days he will probably face growing pressure to step aside.
It’s hard to overstate the importance the Bloomberg campaign had placed on Super Tuesday. His campaign’s fundamental theory was that he could ignore the first four contests and instead blanket the March 3 states with enough ads to leave his rivals behind. Instead, it was Biden who found himself telling a cheering crowd, “They don’t call it Super Tuesday for nothing.”
Two weeks ago, Bloomberg’s own advisers wrote a memo saying the Democratic candidates not named Bernie Sanders had to consolidate forces to preserve any path to the nomination. But even before voters rendered their verdict Tuesday, Biden had done that, winning endorsements from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Bloomberg had begun his surprise campaign for president on a platform of altruism. His wealth, he promised, would be used to build the Democratic Party up and down the ballot, no matter who the nominee was, with the singular goal of defeating Donald Trump and making progress on issues he cared about. He will soon have to answer to how staying in the race furthers that goal.
He made clear Tuesday night that his aim was still defeating Trump, and that his campaign might still have a dual purpose, boosting his own candidacy and promoting the Democratic cause generally.
“While my fellow candidates spent a whole year focusing on the first four states, I was out campaigning against Donald Trump in the states where the election will actually be decided like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania and Ohio and North Carolina, and of course, Florida,” he said.
Bloomberg’s spending accounted for the vast majority of the money shelled out by the candidates in Super Tuesday states — about $18 million in Virginia, $8 million in Alabama and $17 million in North Carolina — yet he handily lost all three to Biden on Tuesday. Polling in other prizes, like California and Colorado, was not promising for him either.
It was a rough letdown for a long-shot presidential campaign that had tried to rewrite the rules of how the White House is won and how much money it could cost. He tried to bypass nearly a year of campaigning in the early primary states, and his wealth allowed him to skip over the onerous process of fundraising.
Among the other things, Bloomberg’s money had purchased a sophisticated data and polling operation that had a firm handle on the state of the country. But like the monitors in the election-night ballroom Tuesday, which switched from cable news to campaign videos before Biden notched his first win in Virginia, the campaign did want to share what it knew.
Only as the polls closed did campaign manager Kevin Sheekey begin to back away from the Bloomberg camp’s unyielding insistence that he would fight on until the Democratic convention in Milwaukee.
“You make an assessment in any campaign like this after any time there is a vote,” Sheekey said. “As of right now we are committing to stay in, but we will see what happens tonight.”
Another campaign aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the campaign is regularly reevaluated, and that process would continue Wednesday. Bloomberg was expected to return to New York on Wednesday.
“Today is a marker,” the aide said, referring to the Super Tuesday vote.
From the start of the campaign, Biden had loomed large in Bloomberg’s thinking. The former vice president’s seeming hold on the nomination had been a major reason Bloomberg initially decided not to run in early 2019. Months later, it was Biden’s faltering performance that led Bloomberg to get into the race after all.
For Bloomberg, the only early result to cheer Tuesday night came from the announcement that Bloomberg had won the territory of American Samoa, taking four of its six delegates to the convention.
Bloomberg has vowed that the campaign he built will go on even if the candidate himself pulls out, with the goal of boosting whoever the Democratic nominee is. The data program he is assembling, called Hawkfish, would continue its work, aides say, and hundreds of campaign staffers in swing states would continue to work through November.
The most substantial legacy of Bloomberg’s campaign is likely to be his massive advertising apparatus. The political world has never seen anything like the flood of money unleashed by the multibillionaire, and he has suggested that will continue.
Under campaign finance law, which has rarely focused on self-funded candidates, Bloomberg’s campaign can pivot at any moment to run ads in support of Biden or another candidate. He has reserved nearly $7 million in advertising over the next two days, which can be repurposed to whatever message he chooses.
Sanders’s advisers have promised to renounce any support from Bloomberg in a general election, given the candidate’s distaste for billionaires, but Biden’s team has not been so discouraging. The ties between the two camps run deep. Sheekey, an early donor to Biden’s 2020 campaign, was considered as a potential chief of staff for Biden when he served as vice president, according to people familiar with the discussions.
As Tuesday approached, Bloomberg had begun to appear more comfortable in the role he had chosen for himself. After a disastrous performance in his first debate on Feb. 19, he improved his performance in his second debate, completed two town halls on Fox News and CNN without incident and found the beginnings of some comfort speaking without a script on the campaign trail.
He also was getting better at looking beyond hard data. On Tuesday, Bloomberg hardly mentioned the 14 states where voting was taking place but took every chance he could to talk about the Florida primary in two weeks.
“I have no intention of dropping out,” he said testily in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami when a reporter challenged him on his declining fortunes. “I’m in it to win it.”
But the kinks that had been evident from the start of the campaign in late November remained.
“I’ve only been doing this 10 weeks,” he told some diners in Miami as he made his way around El Pub restaurant, even though it had been 14 weeks at that point. He was dressed in khakis and tasseled loafers, no suit jacket, which he called a “man of the people” look.
“I’ve never run for president before,” he joked with the diners. “I had nothing else to do.”