How Bloomberg Blew It in Las Vegas

The former New York mayor fumbled badly in his first debate.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

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On Wednesday night, six of the remaining Democratic candidates faced off in Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucuses. All eyes were on former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, despite sitting out the early contests and appearing in none of the previous debates, has surged in many polls thanks to a relentless, self-funded ad campaign. Would he live up to his own hype?

In a word, no. Bloomberg was unprepared for the barrage of attacks he faced from all sides and suffered especially from a set of withering takedowns at the hands of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Intercept’s D.C. Bureau Chief Ryan Grim joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss Bloomberg’s debut performance and how the debate might affect the race going forward.

Elizabeth Warren: We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has who knows how many non-disclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against.

Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. And that was Senator Elizabeth Warren, at the ninth democratic debate in Las Vegas, which unlike the other eight was actually a debate.

Pete Buttigieg: You’re on the committee that oversees border security. And we’re not able to speak to literally the first thing about the politics of the country to our south.

Amy Klobuchar: Are you trying to say that I’m dumb? Are you mocking me here, Pete?

MH: So who won the debate? Was it just Warren? Warren and Sanders? And what happened to the man from the ads, the man with the billions former Republican mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg?

Bernie Sanders: Mr. Bloomberg had policies in New York City of stop and frisk, which went after African American and Latino people in an outrageous way.

AK: I think we need something different than Donald Trump. I don’t think you look at Donald Trump and say, “We need someone richer in the White House.”

EW: I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women “fat broads” and “horse-faced lesbians”. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.

MH: That’s how last night’s debate kicked off. Literally the first thing that Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren did was to go after their newest on stage rival. So question, why did Michael Bloomberg the eighth richest man in America, the former mayor of the country’s biggest city, who successfully and astonishing zoomed into third place nationally, is leading in Florida and a handful of other Super Tuesday states thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in endless ad buys on TV and online, why did he turn up for this ninth Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas last night? What did he think was gonna happen? Why didn’t he just stay home at the mansion and watch it on TV with the rest of us while planning his next advertising blitz?

Because that debate was kind of a disaster for the billionaire from New York. Here’s a man who’s been pretending to have Barack Obama’s endorsement on TV, who’s been pretending to be a Democrat since 2018, who’s been pretending that he’s a Trump hater, when in fact, he’s on record saying:

Michael Bloomberg: I know Donald Trump. He’s a great guy. He doesn’t do everything he says, but he sure tries and I’m a big fan of Donald Trump.

MH: Last year, Bloomberg said he didn’t want to run for president because of all the apologizing he might have to do.

MB: It’s just not going to happen on a national level for somebody like me starting where I am, unless I was willing to change all my views and go on what CNN called “an apology tour”.

MH: Last night, though, he had to offer a pretty half-hearted apology for his terrorizing of black and brown people in New York via stop and frisk.

MB: If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing that I’m really worried about, embarrassed about was how it turned out with stop and frisk. We adopted a policy which had been in place, the policy that all big police departments use of stop and frisk. What happened, however, was it got out of control.

MH: He didn’t, however, have to apologize for his spying on Muslims because nobody gives a damn about Muslims. Still, it turns out when you put him on stage and allow his rivals to take shots at him, and when you see how unprepared he is for those attacks, how robotic and charisma-free he is, well, he doesn’t look all that inevitable, despite the billions at his disposal. I mean, you think he’d have come prepared to deal with all the expected and very legitimate attacks on his wealth, on his billionaire status from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and even, even from NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Chuck Todd: Should you have earned that much money?

MB: Yes, I worked very hard for it. And I’m giving it away.

MH: Sorry, if someone asks you why you’re so filthy rich and you’re running for office, you don’t say it’s because you worked hard, implying therefore the poor people are poor because they don’t work hard or don’t work as hard as you. Yeah, tell that to a single mother working two minimum wage jobs or someone who has to stay at home to care for an elderly or sick parent. Tell them that, Mike. Thankfully, though, Senator Elizabeth Warren was on fire last night, mainly again, at Bloomberg’s expense.

EW: When the mayor says that he apologized, listen closely to the apology. The language he used is about stop and frisk. It’s about how it turned out. Now this isn’t about how it turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with. It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning. You need a different apology.

Lester Holt: Senator, thank you.

MH: Those people who are quick to write Warren off in recent weeks might want to think twice this morning. She’s very good at debates. She just hasn’t been very good at winning primaries, so far. So will this debate lead to a shift in the polls? The polls remember that are currently showing Bernie Sanders, the clear leader in both, Nevada which votes this weekend and nationally where Sanders is 16 points ahead of Joe Biden in second place in the latest Washington Post/ABC opinion poll. By the way, and this is kind of important when all of the candidates were asked towards the end whether they thought the candidate who arrives at the Democratic Convention in Milwaukee in July with the most pledged delegates should win the nomination, all of Bernie’s rivals said no and only Bernie said yes.

BS: Well, the process includes 500 super delegates on the second ballot. So I think that the will of the people should prevail, yes. The person with the most votes should become the nominee.

MH: They’re scared of Bernie, scared of him winning, no doubt about it. And they’re scared of Bloomberg too. Understandably, he has unlimited resources. So last night was supposed to be the night where the other candidates tried to take both Bernie and Bloomberg down. But did they?

[Music interlude.]

MH: I’m joined now to discuss the Last Vegas debate with The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief, my good friend and a regular guest on the show, Ryan Grim. Ryan, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

Ryan Grim: Thanks for having me here.

MH: Ryan, let’s get straight to it. Who was the winner of the debate, in your view? Was there a winner?

RG: Well, there’s kind of two winners like, history I think will mark this as one of the greatest presidential debate performances ever turned in by any presidential candidate and that’s Elizabeth Warren. But you know, paradoxically kind of the winner was Bernie Sanders because what he needs is for Bloomberg to have his momentum blunted and for the trajectory of the race to continue as it has been the last few weeks. And so he got that which you know, if your eye’s on the prize of the nomination, then he is the winner. If your question is about who won this discrete debate, then no question, Elizabeth Warren.

MH: It’s a good point because if anyone you know the proverbial Martian landing from outer space last night and watching the debate might assume that Michael Bloomberg was the front runner, in fact, he’s third nationally, hasn’t taken part in any of the primaries so far. And yet the most of the fire that was rained down was on him, not on the guy in first place. And Pete Buttigieg tried a couple of times he had his kind of pre-prep lines, where he went after Bernie on the one hand and Bloomberg on the other saying they’re not Democrat, saying one’s an extreme socialist, the other’s extreme capitalist, but the rest of them didn’t really go after Bernie at all.

RG: No, they didn’t and Bloomberg is sort of a potential front runner, you know, because he has this reserve of billions of dollars that he has promised to spend it on his own behalf.

MH: He’s only spent a few hundred million so far, only a few hundred million.

RG: Just a few hundred million.

MH: Pocket change for him.

RG: More than anybody has ever spent on a primary and he spent it in just a couple of weeks.

MH: So Michael Bloomberg turns up for this debate. He only qualified for it very late in the day. If I was Bloomberg, I wouldn’t have turned up. Why do you think he turned up?

RG: I think he turned up because he absolutely had to. You know, he’s going to take on the biggest bully on the block Donald Trump. And so if he looks like a guy who’s going to be hiding behind his money and can’t show up, you know, at a Democratic debate, then how are people going to envision him showing up at a Republican debate? So he wasn’t left with much choice, but I think, you know, he’s a smart guy. And I think in the back of his mind, he probably knew that he was better off, the longer he could stay away from these debates.

And I think that’s one reason that he actually refused contributions from the very beginning because the DNC had rules that said, in order to be in the debate, you have to meet a certain polling threshold and a certain number of donors threshold. So he figured, okay, well, as long as I take zero dollars from all people, then the DNC can’t force me onto the stage. Interestingly, it was Warren’s people, you know, Adam Green of the PCCC that kind of publicly and then privately pushed the DNC to change the rules, so that Bloomberg could get on the stage. And precisely for this reason because they know that this is the kind of villain that Warren is most effective at slaying.

MH: Oh, yeah. I saw someone tweet that, I think was Eric Levitz of New York Magazine that Elizabeth Warren was put on this earth to own Michael Bloomberg which I thought was appropriate. I mean, the thing about Bloomberg — we’ll talk about Warren in a moment. The thing about Bloomberg which amazed me as you say, he’s a smart guy. Clearly, he’s a smart guy, wouldn’t have gotten to where he is in life if he wasn’t a smart guy. And he’s surrounded himself with some smart people. Tim O’Brien, former colleague of yours and mine, Howard Wilson, other people who have kind of worked in campaigns or worked in the media. And he’s got this far, quite quickly, you know, third nationally, first in Florida, almost come out of nowhere. That’s impressive. And then you see him turn up for this debate, where as you say he knew, you know, he had to turn up, he knew he was going to get attacked by the likes of Elizabeth Warren. He seemed unprepared, to me. Or maybe it wasn’t lack of preparation. Maybe it’s just in his constitution that he’s unable to take criticism or deal with criticism. I guess if you’re a billionaire, who’s run your own company and then run a major city you surround yourself with yes men, you’ve never really had to put up with criticism.

RG: I think that’s a big part of it. And when we say he’s a smart guy, you know, there are 10s of millions of smart guys and smart women in this country. He’s not a uniquely talented person. What he did is he created a box that sits on the desks of financial titans that he charges them, you know, extraordinary annual fees for and he benefits from these network effects. The reason that you use a Bloomberg terminal is not because it’s the best device that anybody could create. It’s because everybody else uses a Bloomberg terminal. You’re not on Facebook because you absolutely love Facebook, people are on Facebook because other people are on Facebook.

MH: First mover advantage —

RG: Right, so he’s the guy that made those boxes. That doesn’t make him some unique figure. And so I think that the gap between the quality of his ads that Democratic primary voters have been watching and his —

MH: Very good ads.

RG: Excellent ads, the best ads that money can buy, quite literally. The gap between those ads and his performance is going to be jarring to a lot of people.

MH: Although how many people would have seen it, I guess, this classic question we ask after every debate is, how will the “media” and Deconstructed, we, Intercept a part of that, how much of our coverage will drive what Democratic voters then do in terms of you know, we’ve looked for bumps in the polling after debates. Will Elizabeth Warren get a big bump because she clearly had a good night? Will we see Bloomberg a little bit even fade? Because a lot of Democratic voters, as you say, have seen these ads. I know people, elderly voters who have said to me, who have said to you know, their kids who are friends of mine, saying, you know, I like Bloomberg because he’s friends with Obama because they’ve seen all these ads where he makes it look —

RG: He’s endorsed by Obama.

MH: Yeah, as if he’s endorsed by Obama. And if they’ve actually watched the debate, they’ll have seen Obama’s vice president go after him. They’ll have seen Sanders and Warren go after him. Pretty much everyone on the stage went after him. Will that dent his popularity do you think?

RG: I think it will now because the question that every Democratic primary voter has who is open to supporting Mike Bloomberg is can they beat Donald Trump? And so a lot of those people are either watching pieces of that debate, or they’re going to see the viral clips that that come out of the debate of Warren kind of eviscerating him. And then they’re going to picture Michael Bloomberg on the stage with Donald Trump and say to themselves, you know what? Maybe I was wrong. Like, I hoped that Mike Bloomberg was going to be the easy answer to this quandary that we’ve been facing for years. But you know, clearly, you know, he’s not the guy.

MH: He’s not the guy. He’s the guy who’s rolling his eyes when he’s put under pressure by his fellow Democrats. I mean, I personally, a discussion for another time — I wonder whether Donald Trump will even turn up for a debate with whoever the Democrat —

RG: He’ll certainly tease it because he loves the drama.

MH: But he’s a coward fundamentally, and he’s already laying the groundwork to avoid the debates by claiming the commission is biased against him. But just, you mentioned Warren a few times. Let’s talk Elizabeth Warren. Ryan, I think it’s fair to say you and I are among the tiny handful of journalists in this town who have constantly said don’t write off Elizabeth Warren. She was very, very strong last night. This is what she was kind of born to do. She’s very good at debating. We’ve seen her in the Senate cross examining a range of kind of billionaire baddies from the banks. So, it wasn’t surprising that she came out strongest of all the candidates, including Bernie, against Michael Bloomberg.

RG: Right, the calendar is tough for her. You know, there have already been about 70,000 early votes cast in Nevada. You know, this was the debate for the Nevada caucuses. In 2016, there were 86,000 votes cast total. And so, you know, those 70,000 people, a significant chunk of them presumably voted for Bernie Sanders, given what people were reporting from the —

MH: Before last night’s debate.

RG: Right, exactly before last night’s debate.

MH: And she wasn’t doing well before last night, let’s be very clear about that. She didn’t perform as well as the campaign had hoped she would in those first two states especially in New Hampshire, which is neighboring her own state. A lot of her supporters have claimed erasure by the media. Do you buy that, that she’s been kind of ignored by the media?

RG: Certainly, compared to I think Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. They have a very good case to make because I think you could argue that neither of them should be taken seriously at all as candidates given that they have less than 5% support among black and brown voters. This is Klobuchar and Buttigieg and so you’re heading into Nevada and South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday. So where on earth is their path to victory where at least Elizabeth Warren, you know, had a plausible path and, you know, so to spend the scarce media resources that you have on Klobuchar and Buttigieg rather than Warren. It, I think is unfair. But yeah, she got killed in New Hampshire and I think Warren supporters need to grapple with that.

MH: And although you’re right to say that the media exposure for Buttigieg and Klobuchar has been too high relative to their chances, and it’s almost certainly driven by the fact that they’re “moderate centrist” who a lot of mainstream media pundits love. I was just on CNN a couple days ago Bill Kristol, who was singing Amy Klobuchar’s praises. Having said that, after tonight’s debate, it’s fair to say that Klobuchar and Buttigieg could have their own spin off series, couldn’t they? There were some great moments where they just savaged each other. They’ve clearly proven in previous debates that they don’t like each other. I think she had the upper hand in most of the debates leading up to last night where she really kind of got in good digs against Mayor Pete and his inexperience in previous debates. Although I think last night he really, really got under her skin.

RG: Yeah, oh, he’s always under her skin. You know, she looks at him like he’s a member of her staff.

MH: Hasn’t thrown anything at him yet, but she looked like she wanted to last night.

RG: Oh, she very desperately wanted to throw something at him. She just straight up told him, all you’ve done is memorize a bunch of talking points.

MH: Kind of true.

RG: And she went back to a line that she had used a devastating effect on him earlier. But like Klobuchar has a little bit of the kind of Trump language problem where she’ll deliver like a piece of the sentence and not the entire sentence. And so, in the earlier debate, she had hinted at how, look, yes, it’s fair to say that you’re a tough politician, if you’ve won as a gay Democrat statewide in Indiana, but you haven’t, you know, you lost badly. So, but she kind of butchered it a little bit the first time she tried it. So she went back to it this time, and reminded people that he had run statewide in Indiana and lost by 20 points. And then she added the point that he lost to the guy who then himself later lost to a Democrat in a Senate race, so it was not in an unwinnable race.

MH: But it was really, it was Buttigieg who really got some blows in on her I thought last night when he pointed out the fact that she didn’t know the Mexican president’s name. There was that painful exchange on Telemundo last week where she couldn’t name the president of Mexico. She dug herself deeper and deeper into a hole. Last night, she claimed it was you know, oh, I just forgot it. It was a momentary lapse which it clearly wasn’t. He managed to lay a blow on her there about that. He then went off to her record on voting for Trump judges. She has one of the worst, if not the worst records, I think in the Senate, when it comes to voting for Trump judges. And at the end of the debate, I’m not sure how many people notice this. She seemed to rush off the stage. She didn’t stay to talk to any of the other candidates. She dodged shaking Buttigieg’s hand. I don’t know if she went off stage to break some things. But she left in a hurry. It seems like he really, really got under her skin.

RG: Although, did you notice, did she look down at her notes when she said Lopez Obrador?

MH: I need to go back and check the tape. It’s a good question. I saw people tweeting suggesting that even last night, she wasn’t quite sure about the president’s name.

RG: Yeah, it very much like, to me, she said, I remember and I would like to apologize to and then she glanced down at her notes and then said, Lopez Obrador. I think she on her notes, she probably had Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. And then she looked at her notes and said, let’s just do Lopez Obrador. I don’t know why her staff didn’t just tell her to do AMLO. But actually, when it comes to her staff, the answer is because her staff is afraid of her.

MH: And I think we’re going to hear less and less about the Klobuchar surge. From kind of today onwards, I suspect, after every debate, you’ve had kind of “moderate pundits” trying to kind of make her surge happen. She did do better than expected in the Iowa, New Hampshire caucus and the primaries, no doubt about that. But nationally, she’s still weak, and I don’t see where she goes from here. Obviously, Buttigieg thought he could take some of her votes. But you know, she got very annoyed, Amy Klobuchar, about Bloomberg and his campaign suggesting that her, Biden and Buttigieg should get out of the way, but a lot of Democrats up until last night were probably thinking that because the three of them haven’t been able to take out Bernie on their own so far.

RG: Right, Democrats, you know, who want a kind of moderate nominee or who want a nominee who they believe can beat Donald Trump, they definitely want everyone to get out. Except nobody agrees on who is going to get out. You know, he’s trying to pull off some smoke filled room thing in front of like the entire country. And that’s just not how this works.

MH: It’s funny you mention the smoke filled room because of course, towards the end, there was this crucial moment where all of them were asked. And it reminded me of that moment in 2016, kind of when similar things happened in the Republican party where kind of 16 republicans couldn’t defeat Trump together, none of them would get out of the way so that, you know, the party could unite around one person to defeat him. He benefited from that division hugely, in a way and I hate to make this analogy because Bernie’s not Trump, but in a similar way, Bernie is been fitting. But when they were asked last night about, you know what happens at the convention if none of them turn up with a majority of pledged delegates, should the person with a plurality with the most delegates, even if it’s not a majority, should they win the nomination? Surprise, surprise, only Bernie said yes, every single other candidate on stage said no. Maybe the person who doesn’t show up with the most delegates becomes the nominee, that would be chaos, would it not?

RG: It would be you know, and a politician’s view on process is completely determined by what outcome that process could lead to. I mean, even toward the end of the 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders started arguing that super delegates ought to support him because he was polling better head to head even though he was behind in pledged delegates. You know, there is no sanctity around process around any politicians.

MH: They are politicians for a reason.

RG: Right and Chuck Todd was right to say, Bernie, I’ll take you last on this one because I know where you are, which shows that Chuck Todd who just a few days ago was laughing at the idea that Bernie Sanders is the front runner is now basically conceding that he’s the one who’s most likely to come into the convention with the most delegates with the only question being does he have 50% plus one that locks it up? Or is it a plurality?

MH: Do you believe, sorry, to put the prediction gun to your head, but do you believe that anyone can turn up to this convention in Milwaukee, in the summer with a majority of pledged delegates?

RG: The irony is that the only person who can at this point is Bernie Sanders. Like there is a path that he has to that if he wins Nevada, then pulls off an upset in South Carolina which is looking increasingly possible for him and then, you know, it locks in half the delegates on Super Tuesday. That you know, that pushes a lot of people out of the race, makes him the presumptive front runner. And he is then within striking distance of getting an actual majority of pledged delegates. There’s nobody else that you can kind of craft a scenario that doesn’t involve, you know, lightning striking dead the rest of the candidates.

MH: You’re telling me that you don’t think Klobuchar can turn up with 50% plus one?

RG: No, I think the Klobu-mentum is finally going to meet non-white voters. And a strong fifth isn’t going to get you there.

MH: It’s gonna be fascinating to see people who kind of first, you remember, the Democrats went on and on about popular vote and Trump and then Iowa happened and suddenly Bernie’s popular vote lead wasn’t that important, or now it’s going to be or the person with the most delegates or most votes in the primaries doesn’t have to be the nominee. Let’s see what super delegates do in the second round when they’re free to vote as Bernie pointed out tonight. What’s interesting, I think, Ryan, is that you have a lot of people in the media, a lot of people in the “Democratic party establishment” talking about how divisive and chaotic it’s going to be, how many people want to stop Bernie, and you look at the polls, average Democratic party voters don’t necessarily want to stop Bernie. He’s actually hugely popular with Democrats across the board. He has the highest approval rating amongst Democrats. And the most recent polls show that he’s increased his support amongst African Americans, among voters under 50, among conservative Democrats, too. People quite like Bernie as a second choice.

RG: Yeah, one of the biggest analytical errors that pundits make is when they refer to people as moderate voters. Say, well, there’s, you know, 75% of moderate voters here. And then you have 25% of Bernie voters or sometimes they’ll add together Bernie voters and Warren voters. But there aren’t moderate voters. They are voters who have decided at that moment that they are supporting a candidate that the media is considering to be moderate. But that doesn’t mean that they themselves are moderate. They may have a lot of different reasons for supporting that particular candidate. And the most likely reason is they believe that that candidate is the one most likely to beat Donald Trump. And that might mean that they actually agree with Bernie Sanders on his policy message, but they just think that he can’t win. So if Bernie Sanders continues to win then they move to him.

MH: Agree, but I would go even further. I would say it’s not just about his policy message. It’s about the fact that they quite like Bernie Sanders. They don’t hate him, or despise him or see him as you know, an Armageddon candidate in the way that some in the media or Pete Buttigieg last night are trying to suggest that he is and there was a great exchange where one of the moderators said, oh, Bernie, people don’t like socialism in a recent poll, and Bernie’s great comeback was, but who was winning in that poll? He was. Which I think is a very important point that’s overlooked and therefore you get all these artificial debates about how do you stop Bernie, socialism. Bernie bros were a big chunk of last night’s debate, dedicated to kind of his horrible supporters online. And yet, not a single minute of last night’s debate was devoted to foreign policy. The president of the United States has massive control over the world’s strongest military. And yet again, we had another Democratic debate, no mention of Israel Palestine, no mention of the nearly million people displaced and Syria since Christmas, many of them starving to death as we speak. No mention of what’s going on with Iran. Yeah, it was a real, real letdown. It was otherwise actually a quite strong and entertaining and important debate. But again, no foreign policy.

RG: Yeah, that was interesting that they didn’t touch on anything. And I think it comes back to how linked to the news cycle, a lot of debate moderators are. They will not bring up foreign policy in a debate if foreign policy has not been front and center in the news in the recent week. You know, I think that basically explains 100% of the reason why it didn’t come up.

MH: And I think it’s sadly, journalistic malpractice, not to bring it up. But anyways, we’ve run out of time. Ryan, thanks so much for joining me to give us all your insights on last night’s debate. I’m sure there will be many more such discussions.

RG: Well, thank you for having me.

[Music interlude.]

MH: That was The Intercept’s DC bureau chief Ryan Grim discussing last night’s debate in Las Vegas. And that’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – Do it. Go do it now. It helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much! See you next week.

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