Bloomberg’s Path Clouded by Biden’s South Carolina Win

Mark Niquette

(Bloomberg) -- Michael Bloomberg’s campaign was put on the defensive by a swift and ferocious response from supporters of Joe Biden, fresh off a dominant victory in South Carolina, who suggested it was time for the billionaire to step aside.

But the former New York mayor’s campaign said he has no intention of dropping out on the eve of Super Tuesday, when he will appear on ballots for the first time. Bloomberg skipped the first four contests while spending more than $538 million in advertising and setting up a massive field operation nationwide.

“We’ll see what happens, but I’m optimistic. All I can say is this: We have to stop talking and start doing,” Bloomberg said Sunday at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King Unity breakfast in Selma, Alabama, one of the 14 states plus American Samoa that vote in just two days.

Bloomberg will air a three-minute message on NBC and CBS in prime time on Sunday night, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million and $2 million each, to remind voters of his record as a crisis manager as he steps up his criticism of President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

Biden won the South Carolina primary Saturday with almost half of the vote, more than forecast. He trounced the Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders by almost 30 percentage points and captured 61% of the votes cast by African-Americans, according to exit polls.

Moments after the polls closed and it was clear it was Biden’s night, his supporters began calling for Bloomberg to consider quitting the race.

They held up Bloomberg’s argument that he entered the race because he didn’t see any of the current field being able to beat Trump. And they warned that his ongoing presence in the race would merely splinter the vote of centrist Democrats, leaving both he and Biden short of the delegates they needed for the nomination. That, in turn, would allow Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, to become the candidate to go up against Trump in November.

Jay Jacobs, the Democratic Party chairman in Bloomberg’s home state of New York, said the South Carolina results “completely eviscerated” the premise that Biden couldn’t win, and that “accordingly, Mike should seriously consider whether continuing on helps or hurts what he really wants for this country.”

Jacobs is officially neutral in the race but has been critical of Bloomberg’s candidacy.

Gone Awry

David Axelrod, a former strategist for President Barack Obama, said on CNN that the entire rationale for Bloomberg’s candidacy has gone awry.

“As long as Biden is competitive in this race -- as he apparently will be now -- where’s the path for Bloomberg here?” Axelrod said. “He and his team are going to have to have a hard discussion if Biden’s momentum continues on Tuesday and he finishes second and closest to Bernie Sanders.”

In Super Tuesday states where Biden and Bloomberg were neck-and-neck in polls, like Virginia, party leaders including former Governor Terry McAuliffe and Representative Bobby Scott decided this weekend that it was time to endorse Biden. Other Democratic officials in key states, like former party chairwoman and Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also got on board.

“Bloomberg should reconsider how best to achieve his goal of ensuring Trump is defeated this fall,” said Senator Chris Coons, an early Biden supporter from his home state of Delaware. “The most likely impact of having several moderates competing for votes on Super Tuesday is to dilute their appeal, even though a majority of voters in all four of the early voting states supported a moderate candidate.”

Super Tuesday

Bloomberg’s campaign said Sunday it would have nothing more to say beyond a statement campaign manager Kevin Sheekey released Saturday night.

“Mike Bloomberg has not been on the ballot yet,” Sheekey said. “Mike is the only candidate to campaign in all fourteen Super Tuesday states over the last two months, and we look forward to Tuesday.”

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” taped before the South Carolina primary, Bloomberg said he would stay in the race even if he is not in the top three on Tuesday.

“There’s an election seven or so days later,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the network. “There’s another one 14 days later. There’s a number of elections after that.”

Bloomberg said that if Sanders is the nominee, Trump will beat him because “the middle of the road doesn’t want extremism.” He added that if Trump were re-elected, the Congress would be Republican, “a lotta statehouses” will flip to the GOP, “and when that happens, you’re gonna have gerrymandering at the local level, and judicial appointments at the federal level that will last for decades.” Bloomberg said.

Bloomberg made multiple early visits to the Super Tuesday states and spent almost $219 million in advertising -- compared with $1.7 million for Biden, according to Advertising Analytics -- and has more than 100 field offices full of staffers to turn out voters.

But his two debate performances, where he struggled to fend off attacks from his rivals, undercut the image he presented in his ads and during controlled campaign events. He’s even added a line to his stump speech that he’s running to be commander-in-chief, not “college-debater-in-chief.”

Bloomberg also has been apologizing for a number of comments and policies from his past. Those include New York’s stop-and-frisk policing that disproportionately targeted blacks and Hispanics, and allegations that women faced a hostile work environment at his company. African-Americans, Hispanics and women are critical Democratic constituencies.

Mile Three

As Bloomberg addressed congregants at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma on Sunday, nine attendees stood and turned their backs to him as he spoke about the civil rights movement and his desire to carry on its legacy.

Many were from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Ryan Haygood, the group’s president, said he and others turned their backs when it became clear that Bloomberg was not going to address what he called the “shameful” policy of stop and frisk from the pulpit.

Hargood said the people around him who stood were from his team, but there were others who weren’t.

In his introduction of the former mayor, Pastor Leodis Strong said Bloomberg had initially turned down his invitation but ultimately came.

He also continues to face criticism for trying to “buy” the nomination, and he’s now the only billionaire remaining in the race after former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer dropped out on Saturday.

Bloomberg is trying out a new theme of his campaign speeches, focusing on his managerial experience as New York mayor and head of a large company to say he could handle crises like the coronavirus better than Trump or the Democratic candidates who are career politicians.

Bloomberg has hammered Trump on his handling of the outbreak, saying the president “buried his head in the sand” and that the stock market plunge shows “the market is pricing in the president’s management incompetence.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said the nomination race is still early, comparing it to mile three or four of a marathon.

“We have a long way to go,” Perez said at the North Carolina Democratic Party dinner. “I don’t know who our nominee will be.”

(Updates with Bloomberg comments beginning in 17th paragraph)

--With assistance from Jennifer Epstein and Bill Allison.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Niquette in Columbus at mniquette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Ros Krasny

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