Days before the 2001 election, polls showed Michael Bloomberg trailing a seasoned opponent by double-digits. Dismissed as a billionaire trying to buy his way into office, the first-time candidate’s style was charitably described as “low-key” — and less charitably as detached or “dry as toast”. Yet he prevailed to become New York City’s mayor. “Nobody believed we would do this tonight, but we had faith,” he said as supporters basked in victory.
That formative political experience — and a battery of data and opinion research — have kindled a similar faith among Bloomberg loyalists this week as he joined the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But at a time when progressive ideas are on the ascendant, some derided the announcement as a misguided vanity project for a 77-year-old media baron who ran in New York as a moderate Republican.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has put taxing billionaires at the centre of her candidacy, welcomed Mr Bloomberg to the race this way: “He doesn’t need people. He only needs bags and bags of money.”
Indeed, Mr Bloomberg is wielding his $54bn fortune like a bludgeon. A $30m television advertising bombardment that one political strategist called “shelling the beach” lauds his accomplishments: building his eponymous media and data business; resuscitating New York after the September 11 terror attacks; and then donating billions of dollars to tackle climate change, gun violence and other causes. “I offer myself as a doer and a problem-solver — not a talker,” Mr Bloomberg said in a no-frills, online campaign launch on Sunday.
Yet those successes bring with them awkward questions. Allegations have resurfaced about a testosterone-fuelled and sexist office culture at Bloomberg LP. In one 1997 lawsuit, Mr Bloomberg is alleged to have uttered “kill it” when an employee informed him she was pregnant — something he has denied. His aides say the claims are not new, but they play differently after the #MeToo drive against sexual harassment.
Mr Bloomberg’s mayoral record poses problems for his efforts to attract black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency. He recently apologised for his longstanding support of a “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy that disproportionately affected minority New Yorkers. Pundits warn that if Mr Bloomberg’s campaign goes down in flames, he could split moderate Democrats and smooth the path for a candidate on the far-left.
A son of working-class Medford, Massachusetts, Mr Bloomberg is entirely self-made. At Johns Hopkins University, he was the only Jew in his fraternity. After Harvard Business School, Mr Bloomberg rose quickly at the Wall Street firm of Salomon Brothers, where he earned a reputation for smarts, sharp edges and occasional crassness. To his surprise — but not that of his colleagues — he was sacked after a 1981 merger.
Mr Bloomberg rebounded by inventing a securities data terminal that upset the incumbents — Dow Jones and Reuters. There are now more than 300,000 Bloomberg machines on traders’ desks around the world. But the campaign is tying the company’s news division up in knots. John Micklethwait, editor in chief, has said that the 2,700 journalists will refrain from investigating Mr Bloomberg and, for the sake of fairness, his Democratic rivals. But they will continue to scrutinise Mr Trump. “This is uncharted terrain,” the editorial board explained in a note to readers.
Mr Bloomberg’s fellow tycoons are fans already. Rupert Murdoch once described him as “the most creative media entrepreneur of our time”. And Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone founder, predicted Mr Bloomberg’s intellect would single-handedly shift the Democratic debate.
The adulation is due to his success as an entrepreneur and as mayor. Mr Bloomberg, who took office just months after the 2001 attacks, helped guide New York’s long recovery. He overcame the administrative challenges of a recession and daunting budget deficit and made clear the stricken city would survive and thrive as a financial centre.
After controversially rewriting New York’s rules to allow himself to serve a third term, Mr Bloomberg moved into philanthropy — and regularly batted down speculation about a possible presidential run. He initially passed on the 2020 campaign after fearing he would play spoiler to moderates like Joe Biden. Friends say he changed his mind over the summer after polls showed the leading Democratic candidates struggling in battleground states. His best chance may lie in tapping the many Democratic voters who prize the ability to beat Mr Trump above all else.
His late entry has forced Mr Bloomberg into an unorthodox strategy. Skipping the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where successful candidates typically build momentum, he is putting plans to bet hard on the 14 “Super Tuesday” states that vote on March 3. So, while the rest of the field was fighting in Iowa this week, Mr Bloomberg jetted to Virginia and Arkansas.
Mr Bloomberg will also wage what aides are calling a “parallel campaign” with a $100m digital media assault that includes attacks on Mr Trump in battleground states. “Part of showing that Mike is the one who can beat Trump is taking the fight to Trump,” says Jason Schechter, the campaign spokesperson. It might seem far-fetched. But then, so is most of Mr Bloomberg’s career so far.
The writer is the Financial Times’ New York correspondent. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, the US business editor, also contributed