Michael Bloomberg can take on Trump, but can he beat Bernie?
Over the past few weeks, many of the traditional donors who make up Hollywood’s center left are intrigued and maybe even enthralled by the former New York mayor, who has been wooing them with the prospect of beating Donald Trump with his own personal fortune. Bloomberg has poured hundreds of millions into TV advertising — enough to help drive up the stock price of some TV station groups — and has shown that he’s willing to put money behind his message.
Besides the new scrutiny that Bloomberg now faces, the bigger question is whether he can stop Bernie Sanders.
Leading in a number of polls and boosted by a torrent of small-dollar donations, Sanders also is a pop culture favorite, drawing endorsements from the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Cardi B and Ariana Grande. But there are plenty of showbiz donors and Democratic activists who fear a Sanders nomination will mean a George McGovern-style wipeout come November, and they are flirting with the idea that Bloomberg is the antidote.
Bloomberg set his sights on Sanders on Monday, with a new ad in which he took on the harassing rhetoric of so-called Bernie Bros, while Sanders shot back with a shot of Bloomberg on the golf links with Trump. The two near-octogenarians will have a direct faceoff on Wednesday in Las Vegas, when Bloomberg participates in his first Democratic debate.
“We do have a guy with a very big wallet, and a huge track record of public and private success, who may be the great equalizer against Trump,” said Ken Solomon, president of the Tennis Channel and a longtime Democratic activist, who has not yet endorsed in the race.
There actually is a bit of relief to some of a candidate who’s not coming courting for his own campaign cash.
He’s won over not just Judge Judy Sheindlin and Michael Douglas but bundlers for former candidates like Kamala Harris. He’s hired a team that includes UTA’s former social media head Eric Kuhn as senior adviser for social media and influencers. Entrepreneur Jon Vein, a member of Bloomberg’s leadership committee, and producer Ellen Goldsmith-Vein held an event for the candidate at their home earlier this month that drew 200 or so attendees, even though the candidate wasn’t there. Last week, Bloomberg’s partner, Diana Taylor, addressed a Westside crowd at the home of Nina Zinterhofer Stanford and Scott Stanford, with a list of attendees that included Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of the Los Angeles Times. Says one Democratic insider: “They are not asking for really anything. There is such an advantage in that. They understand that if you have an ability to share his message and share your network, that is how you win.”
Moreover, in Hollywood, many already know Bloomberg — if not as a fellow dealmaker then as the mayor who helped grease the wheels to make Manhattan an easier place to film. And better yet, Bloomberg knows Trump, how to bait and needle him, and then how to respond. That was apparent last week as when the president mocked Bloomberg’s height and Bloomberg responded with his own bite, calling the president a “carnival-barking clown.”
Douglas has been among Bloomberg’s most enthusiastic backers, even trekking to Madison, Wisconsin earlier this month to mark the opening of a campaign office. Douglas told Bloomberg supporters that some of the last words that his father Kirk said to him were, “Mike can get it done.”
John Mellencamp did an ad for Bloomberg in which he noted that by self-financing his campaign, “he can’t be bought. Thing about that. A politician who cannot be bought. That’s worth everything.”
Some find Bloomberg and his campaign arrogant — not that that is necessarily a jarring trait in Hollywood — but also see his presidential bid, with its multitude of paid consultants and meme makers, as a bit tone deaf for the times. In his book The Role of a Lifetime, Disney CEO Bob Iger says he passed on running in 2020 in part because he was skeptical of the party’s “willingness and ability” to support a successful business person. And that was well before Sanders, an Iger critic who has shunned most high-dollar fundraising, emerged as the party front runner.
There also is worry that a Bloomberg vs. Bernie showdown will only worsen the party’s class conflict — the billionaire candidate vs. the “no billionaire” contender — and ultimately play itself out on the floor of the Milwaukee convention in July. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar or perhaps a revived Joe Biden could start to consolidate center-left support in the Nevada and South Carolina contests this month, only to be stopped on Super Tuesday, where Bloomberg starts to compete. The party’s proportional delegate allocation could set up a scenario where Sanders holds a slight lead over Bloomberg, setting up the battle to come.
“The one thing we do know is that Bernie will still be standing, and Bloomberg will still be looming,” said Andy Spahn, the political and philanthropic adviser.
With Bloomberg rising in the polls, he will be the target on the debate stage Wednesday, as candidates likely pick up on recent stories about how he viewed New York’s stop-and-frisk policy and how he handled sexual harassment lawsuits at Bloomberg LP. For many voters, this will be the first time that they have even heard much from Bloomberg outside of the 30-second spot.
“I think there are more questions than answers as to how this race will play out,” said Rufus Gifford, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark and Barack Obama’s 2012 finance director.
Gifford has endorsed Biden and still thinks he is in the best position to beat Trump. “People who have written Biden off are not paying close enough attention to politics,” he said. Among those also weighing in for the former vice president: Cher, who wrote “last nite I asked myself, who would I be if I denied a man I know & respect 4 a shiny, new, tech savey BILLIONAIRE.”
Ava DuVernay is among those who have questioned how Bloomberg’s administration dealt with the Central Park Five case, the subject of her project When They See Us.
The muddle of the Democratic primary race also has struck many Democrats with a familiar feeling of anxiety and angst.
Solomon suggested that the confusion now is due to the knowledge of the battle ahead. “The thing I continue to take us Democrats to task for is always running around saying, ‘The sky is falling. It is such a disaster,'” he said. “Well, it is messy, in large part because we are preparing to fight an asymmetrical war that defies all logic, against a guy in the White House who pegs the crazy meter.”