Bloomberg tried to consolidate the anti-Sanders vote, but ended up fracturing it

Image: Mike Bloomberg and Senator Bernie Sanders on video screens in the me
Mike Bloomberg and Senator Bernie Sanders on video screens in the media filing center during the ninth Democratic 2020 U.S. Presidential candidates debate at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas, Nevada, Feb. 19, 2020. Copyright David Becker Reuters
By Alex Seitz-Wald with NBC News Politics
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If Bloomberg had not entered the race, there would be one fewer candidate in the crowded moderate lane of the 2020 Democratic primary to face Sanders.

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LAS VEGAS — Mike Bloomberg came here to consolidate the anti-Bernie Sanders vote, but may have ended up fracturing it further while reviving the campaign of another progressive rival, Elizabeth Warren, by being her perfect foil.

"Warren soared, Bloomberg stumbled, Sanders skated," said Rob Friedlander, a former top adviser to Beto O'Rourke's campaign. "The door to the nomination is still open for multiple candidates, but without meaningful consolidation of the non-Sanders vote — and fast, with Super Tuesday looming — the delegate math could become inescapable."

If Bloomberg had not entered the race, there would be one fewer candidate in the crowded moderate lane of the 2020 Democratic primary and the others might have spent the critical time between Iowa and Super Tuesday, now less than two weeks away, sorting themselves out instead of waiting to see Bloomberg in action.

"The problem is, it's now Sanders and everyone else," said Democratic consultant Michael Starr Hopkins. "Everyone else is fighting to be the alternative to Sanders. But as long as you have five or six people splitting up the vote by trying to be the alternative to him, no one is going to be."

Bloomberg is not going anywhere. And a poor debate showing for him means less than it would for other candidates, since his ads can reach millions who didn't watch the debate and he's at no risk of having his money dry up.

But his lackluster debate performance gave his rivals further resolve to stay in the race.

Pete Buttigieg's campaign suggested in a memo sent to supporters Thursday that Bloomberg should exit the race or risk handing the nomination to Sanders, turning the tables on Bloomberg who, just two day earlier, sent his own memo calling on Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Joe Biden to drop out.

"Bloomberg had the worst debate performance in presidential debate history and he showed he can't handle Sanders, let alone Donald Trump," the Buttigieg memo read. "If Bloomberg remains in the race despite showing he can not offer a viable alternative to Bernie Sanders, he will propel Sanders to a seemingly insurmountable delegate lead siphoning votes away from Pete, the current leader in delegates."

Progressives agree with that analysis, and are thrilled by it.

"With the moderates unable to consolidate ahead of Super Tuesday, Sanders is poised to garner an insurmountable delegate lead," said Sean McElwee, the founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress. "Bloomberg has proven to be as unreliable vehicle for moderates as Biden was."

Warren, meanwhile, who had studiously avoided drawing contrasts with other Democratic candidates, finally found a target she was willing to hit in the real-life billionaire standing on stage next to her.

"Warren ripped Mike Bloomberg's face off on national television," said Charles Chamberlain, chair of Democracy for America, a progressive group that has not yet endorsed anyone in the race.

Her return to fighting form, after her attempt to portray herself as a unifier, led to disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and earned $5 million in fresh donations and a new lease on life.

It may be too late to put Warren back on the fast-track to the nomination, but she's now more likely to cross the critical 15 percent threshold needed to secure delegates in upcoming contests. That would deprive the moderates of delegates that could be critical at a potential contested Democratic National Convention this summer, a scenario that looks increasingly likely.

While Warren and Sanders are seen as competitive for progressive voters, many of their allies have for years foreseen the possibility that they might need to pool delegates at the convention to block a moderate from winning.

"Together, these progressives came in to fight against the billionaires and the candidates billionaires are backing — and won," Chamberlain added.

Klobuchar, Biden and Buttigieg all reported strong fundraising after the debate, and all now have super PACs backing them, as does Warren, which will only give them further support to stay in the race.

Bloomberg and his billions still can't be counted out, however.

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Out-of-practice and late to enter the race, Bloomberg was still lacing up his gloves while the rest of the field was finally taking them off, eight months after they started debating each other.

The debates are coming more frequently now. And the former mayor, who grew into a strong debater over the course of his three New York City mayoral runs, could come back stronger at next week's debate in South Carolina, just as Barack Obama did after a notoriously poor showing in his first bout with Mitt Romney during his 2012 re-election campaign.

"My suggestion to Mayor Bloomberg would be that he step away from the commercials and land on some of the streets of America and start talking to people who are really affected by the rigged economy," said Lee Saunders, the president of AFSCME, one of the nation's largest labor unions, which has remained neutral in the primary.

Nearly 20 million people watched the two-hour NBC News and MSNBC debate, the highest number for any 2020 debate so far.

But even that audience is likely dwarfed by the tens of million Bloomberg is reaching in through the 4,106 hours — or 171 days — of ads his campaign is running in 34 states and territories, according to Advertising Analytics.

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And Bloomberg has always wanted this to become a two-man race between him and Sanders. Half of that formula fell flat Wednesday, but the other part, Sanders, is now in place.

"Look, the real winner of the debate last night was Donald Trump," Bloomberg said Thursday while campaigning in Utah, a Super Tuesday state. "If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base, like Senator Sanders, it will be a fatal error."

Ironically, though, since Bloomberg has pledged to keep spending to help whoever wins the Democratic nomination go up against President Donald Trump, he could end up helping spending even more to help put Sanders in the White House if Democrats don't heed his warning.

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