A little more than a week and a half ago, Mike Bloomberg’s Brooklyn campaign office was just an empty storefront — the kind of white-walled box one can rent on an app for $400 an hour, if they have an art show or a pop-up influencer event to throw — with inoffensive wood floors and just a touch of exposed brick. On Wednesday night, for the former New York mayor’s debut on the Democratic primary stage, the room was littered with Mike 2020 signs, the pricey kind: corrugated plastic, high-quality ink.
An acrylic portrait of Biggie Smalls by “a local artist,” a campaign spokeswoman eagerly noted, hung on one wall. On the opposite was a map of the cities (51) and states (22) the financial titan, media tycoon, and three-term mayor of New York has visited since jumping into the 2020 presidential campaign less than three months ago, after almost a dozen candidates had already bowed out. Someone had strung blue LED lights for the occasion, and a projector was beaming a livestream from the main event in Las Vegas on the back wall. But if the handsomely compensated campaign workers staffing the event imagined their candidate would be greeted on the debate stage like a team of EMTs racing into a parking lot in the nick of time, the reception he got — even here, at this catered party at his own campaign office — was somewhat more tepid.
The night started off promisingly enough: Roughly 70 supporters were there for tip-off, either perched on folding chairs or piling their plates with selections from a generous halal buffet (provided, the Bloomberg spokeswoman noted, by a “local caterer”). The space could fit 200, but between the tables of food and the tables covered with Mike 2020 buttons and stickers, it felt cozy for at least the first 35 to 40 minutes of the debate, around the time it became abundantly clear that the strategy the former mayor’s aides pursued up until this point — predicated on keeping him off the debate stage as long as possible — was the correct instinct.
Bloombergites started the night fired up. Warren’s early knock on their guy — “a billionaire who calls women ‘fat broads’ and ‘horse-faced lesbians’” — elicited a loud chorus of boos in the room, but it got considerably quieter after that. The Bloomberg team soon lowered volume for a brief PSA: “We’re not going to do boos — positive vibes!” a campaign volunteer gently suggested. After that, there was a single awkward cheer for the mayor’s stop-and-frisk answer, and a lot of muted grumbles and head shakes as Bloomberg was slammed again, and again, and again by his rivals.
Folks started peeling off about midway through the debate, but not Jay Downey nor Craig Shirtleff, two friends, digging into the halal spread, who told me they’d come out of a morbid curiosity. They — a Bernie Sanders supporter and an Elizabeth Warren guy — wanted to watch the reaction of Bloomberg supporters to his debate performance. Mostly, Downey said, he was there to see “who could bring themselves to something like this unironically.”
He seemed satisfied: The crowd felt “deflated. Bloomberg just got dragged… When his record gets brought up at all, this room goes silent,” he noted.
Ruth DeGolia, who arrived with her fiancé, Josue Alvarez, was a bit more open-minded. DeGolia, who described herself as a Warren supporter most politically aligned with Sanders, had found herself at the Bloomberg party after two slightly disappointing finishes by her first choice candidate in Iowa, then New Hampshire. Alvarez, a committed Bloomberg stan, liked that he “can’t be swayed by outside money,” and approved of the former mayor’s support of liberal causes — mentioning in particular money Bloomberg’s PAC put up in 2018 that helped to sweep 15 female candidates into office.
DeGolia was looking at Bloomberg after “starting to get very nervous” that neither Warren nor Sanders could prevail in a general election. “I don’t like the idea that a billionaire can buy his way” into the presidential race at this stage, she admitted. And while she was “not super excited” about the prospect of Bloomberg becoming the nominee, she was considering his candidacy and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s as back-ups. Still she had reservations: “Is he a little bit racist? Is he a little bit sexist?”
Nicole Anselm, who was invited to the watch party after signing up to volunteer for Bloomberg, also had reservations after finally seeing her candidate debate. In particular, Anselm, who is black and lived in New York during Bloomberg’s three terms, was given pause by his defense of stop-and-frisk. But she was quick to add, “It did work — the numbers show … I know his intentions were good.”
Two blocks down Atlantic Avenue, at the Commons Cafe — where a life-size cutout of Warren greets you as you walk through the door — the mood was far less ambivalent. You could even call it jubilant. In a rowdy, packed backroom lit by Edison bulbs, the Massachusetts senator’s supporters cheered and jeered and guzzled unfiltered beers from glass goblets. Glittery handmade signs hung from the walls, next to the WiFi password (“Composting,” capital C); campaign volunteers, wearing tags with both their names and pronouns, milled around with sign-up sheets for phone banking and canvassing.
The crowd snapped and whistled and hollered with each one-liner Warren or Sanders landed at Bloomberg’s expense. (“He’s got to regret it,” one mused about Bloomberg’s decision to get in the race; “It looks like he’s sucking on a lemon,” another observed.) The mood was so bright, you would hardly know that their chosen candidate — once the heavy favorite in this race — was running a distant third to both Sanders and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and just barely ahead of a relatively low-profile senator who, at one point last year, was best known for eating a salad with a comb.
Warren, who placed third in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, ranks third overall in the race for delegates, ahead of Klobuchar and Joe Biden. There seemed to be a growing consensus going into Wednesday’s debate that she was basically toast, a sneaking feeling bolstered by certain microaggressions — like the fact that Warren was recently left off of the portion of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey that put candidates, including Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who both who placed lower than Warren in the poll, in hypothetical head-to-head matchups against President Trump.
All that seemed forgotten Wednesday night, as Warren finally got the chance to directly confront her favorite campaign-trail foil: the greedy billionaire. Supporters, like Matthew Malloy, who will tell you proudly that — “fun fact” — he happened to be the very last person in the selfie line with Warren when she appeared in Washington Square Park last summer, were delighted.
Malloy assured me he is “really not” worried about Warren’s performance in the primary so far. Bloomberg might be carpet-bombing the airwaves in Super Tuesday states, but, Malloy said, the Warren campaign — where he has been volunteering since August — has put a “premium on people, not advertising.” And that last night was the most valuable airtime of all, with Bloomberg finally there front and center. “There’s not a better canvas to illuminate what’s wrong with our society,” Malloy said.
But there were others who admitted, after some prodding, that even with the help of her strongest debate yet, it was going to be tough for Warren to stage a meaningful comeback in this race. Tyler Adams helped organize the debate watch party, which — while larger than the Bloomberg viewing down the street — constituted a smaller group of Warren supporters than had gathered to watch other debates.
“Am I scared? No,” Adams said. “With love comes vulnerability.” And, win or lose, Adams takes some comfort in the fact that, “by being a [Warren] supporter, I’ve done everything I could — I left it all on the field for this country.”
As for Bloomberg, he didn’t leave much of an impression — maybe because Tom Steyer didn’t make the cut this time around. (“Swap one billionaire out for another,” Adams joked.) But, she added, somewhat flatly, “I think he has enough money that it doesn’t matter how he did.”
After the closing statements wrapped up, carts of leftover food were being rolled out of the Bloomberg party and John Makonen strolled out onto Atlantic Avenue. He said he thought the mayor seemed “nervous,” chalking his uneven performance up to “first-night jitters.”
Makonen, who claims with a note of pride that he predicted Trump’s victory, thinks the president will be defeated this time, and he’s confident either Sanders of Bloomberg will do it — he just doesn’t know which one it will be, or which of the two he’ll back. (They might represent vastly different worldviews, but Makonen insists both Sanders and Bloomberg are more issues-focused than the rest of the pack and neither, he notes, accept money from “special interests.”)
As for Ruth DeGolia and her fiancé, Josue, they disappeared from the Bloomberg party halfway through. DeGolia confirmed by text they’d left to join the Warren contingent at the Commons Cafe. “I didn’t become a Bloomberg supporter,” she wrote. “Josue continued to support him, but I decided to stick with Warren particularly after her strong debate performance.”