It’s been established that Wednesday night was not a good one for supporters of Michael Bloomberg’s campaign. The ex-mayor of New York looked uncomfortable, defensive, and generally out of his depth in his first debate appearance as he was hammered with tough questions from moderators and criticism from fellow candidates.
It was a particularly painful evening, the Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee reports, for the top-dollar Democratic donors who initially backed Joe Biden but have been preparing to switch their allegiance to Bloomberg:
CNBC’s Brian Schwartz published a piece about this cohort on Wednesday afternoon, before the debate, writing that “close to a dozen” Wall Street figures and white-shoe lawyers who had been doing major fundraising for Biden had decided to switch their support Bloomberg because they believed that he was the only candidate formidable enough to defeat finance-hostile Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
And then Bernie Sanders—and Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, and … Chuck Todd?—pummeled Wall Street’s anointed strongman into a stammering, scowling state of helplessness, on national TV. Somehow, what was self-evident to the donors failed entirely to manifest itself in its very first contact with the realities of a presidential campaign.
This shouldn’t have surprised them, since their rationale for choosing Bloomberg echoed the reasoning described in articles about donors who’d decided to support Biden before the Biden campaign launched last spring only to stall and then nosedive as its candidate repeatedly gave uninspiring public performances. One early Biden donor told the New York Times that “he saw Mr. Biden as the party’s best chance to defeat President Trump.” One told the Hill that he was taken by the way Biden had “lit up the crowd” at an exclusive Democratic event in Los Angeles the previous year. Going back even further in the Democratic Party establishment’s ill-starred 21st-century history of anointing presidential front-runners, you see the same pattern: The party’s biggest white-collar coastal donors and “bundlers” predominately line up behind one candidate, describing that person in interviews and endorsements as the strongest or most electable figure in the race. Then that candidate loses to the Republican nominee, or Barack Obama, or, as seems likely right now, Bernie Sanders.
Why does this keep happening? One reason might be that these individuals reductively define the “strongest” candidate as the one who is 1) already famous, 2) closest to “the center” on a left-right scale, and 3) most accustomed to speaking to small groups of people who work in finance, consulting, and corporate law. To be fair, those are important attributes in many campaigns. But other attributes are also important, particularly in presidential primaries during which a number of different candidates can use “earned” media coverage and small donations to gain and hold voters’ attention without the approval of party gatekeepers. One of those attributes is speaking in public without coming across as a total stiff or repeatedly shooting yourself in the ass.
Donating the legal maximum of $2,800 to a candidate is, for many people who work on and around the financial sector, a relatively trivial expense. Moreover, the “bundler” model—by which those who have maxed out their donations hold events in their homes to ask friends and family members if they’ll max out as well—gives the process a strong social element. Donors might not give the same level of life-and-death scrutiny to the candidate-selection process that they would to a big decision in their professional life. Nonetheless, for campaigns and parties, the decisions are a matter of life and death. Which is why, for a small (i.e., gigantic) fee, I will make myself available in 2023 to advise financial executives and law-firm partners to watch Democratic candidates answer at least one hard question on national television before they confidently tell a CNBC reporter who the most unstoppably impressive and electable nominee would be.