Insofar as Mike Bloomberg actually wanted to become president of the United States, his run at the Democratic nomination was a historically expensive flop—a John Carter–like bomb in which he spent $600 million of his own money flooding the country with field offices and ads, before failing to win a single state on Super Tuesday (he did nab American Samoa) and dropping out. Along the way, the whole country got to learn about Bloomberg’s (alleged) history of grotesque sexism, which came to a head during two cringe-y debate performances during which Sen. Elizabeth Warren surgically removed his dignity in front of a live national audience. The former New York mayor officially ended his candidacy and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, the race’s new front-runner, on Wednesday, and speaking to a crowd of his supporters, he choked up. “I’m sorry we didn’t win,” he said, “but it’s still the best day of my life and tomorrow is going to be even better.” It was the world’s least convincing Lou Gehrig impression.
For all these reasons and more, Bloomberg has spent the past 24 hours getting ferociously dunked on all across Twitter, including by his nemesis, President Donald Trump.
It was a solid burn. But the reality is that for all the humiliation and mockery Bloomberg is enduring this week, the man is poised to emerge more politically influential than ever, precisely because his money will now be freed from the hopeless cause of trying to make him president.
Bloomberg, who has a net worth of about $58 billion according to Forbes, was already one of the most important Democratic donors before he ran for president. He and his various groups spent more than $41 million on two dozen congressional races during the 2018 midterms, which helped give the party its House majority. That could be just a tiny preview of what he’s about to do during this year’s general election. Bloomberg has promised to continue paying his massive campaign team to support the party’s eventual nominee in November, unless it is Sen. Bernie Sanders. And though the primary is far from over, there’s a strong chance that the nominee will be Biden, which means Bloomberg’s operation may be about to transform into a super PAC of unprecedented size. During his speech, Bloomberg said he would “not walk away from the most important political fight of my life”—i.e., toppling Trump. His staffers are sending the same message. In response to Trump’s Twitter taunt, adviser Tim O’Brien shot back: “Well, @JoeBiden, @MikeBloomberg and the rest of the @Mike2020 team are still here, Donald. And we’re going to beat you in November.” Bloomberg social media opted for a well-worn but telling Star Wars reference:
In other words, Bloomberg is about to transform from a weak, slow-footed presidential candidate into a pure financial force.
If you think about it in that context, Bloomberg’s campaign doesn’t look like such a disaster either. Instead of a giant “product flop,” as HuffPost put it, the effort looks like a beta test for a highly professional paid media and field operation that can now be turned to the task of defeating Trump and electing Democrats to Capitol Hill. Its early results haven’t even been all that bad, really. I mean, Bloomberg was an ex-Republican with glaring liabilities on gender (ahem, “Kill it“) and race (stop and frisk) in a party dominated by women and black voters, who also happens to have all the natural charisma of a skink. There is no rational world in which he made sense as the Democratic nominee. Nonetheless, he briefly surged to real contender status on the strength of his ad blitz and still managed to pull between 13 and 15 percent in several Super Tuesday states, often outperforming Warren herself. Ultimately, his campaign showed that money can’t buy a truly hopeless candidate a presidential nomination. But it can buy something.
The upside of having Bloomberg as the Democratic Party’s Obi-Wan is that it would mean nearly limitless resources for candidates in key races. The $600 million he spent on this race will not even put a dent in his fortune. He could plausibly double, triple, or quintuple that spending for the general election and end up richer by the end of the year if the financial markets bounce back enough. And there’s no reason to think he’d spare expenses. We’re talking about an aging plutocrat who now wants to fix his wounded pride by taking down the president of the United States. He’ll spend whatever he believes it will take. And given that Biden is rickety campaigner with declining speaking skills and not much in the way of activist support (at least yet), the fact that he could bring along Bloomberg’s resources may be one of the few true upsides of his candidacy. It might give Trump fodder for some campaign spots about how Biden is just Mayor Big Gulp’s puppet. But nobody’s really going to see those ads if Bloomberg’s super PAC buys up every prime-time ad spot just for kicks.
It should go without saying that there is also an obvious downside to all this. It is deeply unhealthy for democracy when political parties or politicians become reliant on a few billionaires’ exorbitant patronage. By extension, it’s even less healthy when they’re reliant on a single billionaire’s giving. Whether you like Bloomberg’s views—progressive on guns and climate, historically moderate to conservative on economics—it is fundamentally unsettling that his pocketbook could wield more influence over the shape of the Democratic Party and the country than all of the small donors who have backed Sanders’ campaign. No one should have all that power. Unfortunately, given the liabilities of the race’s current front-runner, Democrats just might need Bloomberg to use it.