About 200 Michael Bloomberg supporters who attended a debate watch party hosted by his New York campaign began the night optimistically, chatting, snacking on chips and hummus, and sipping La Croix.
But by the first commercial break, after Bloomberg failed to deflect attacks on stop-and-frisk, sexism and harassment at his company, and his personal wealth, one attendee summed up how the former New York mayor’s first debate was going: “Terribly.”
It’s been a long week for Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. A viral audio clip captured the candidate defending police’s targeting of people of color with the stop-and-frisk policy that largely defined his administration, BuzzFeed News published a report showing Bloomberg has referred to transgender individuals as “it,” and the Washington Post detailed a history of misogynistic comments alleged by women who have worked for his financial company, Bloomberg L.P.
But Wednesday also marked the first time that Bloomberg qualified to appear on stage at a Democratic presidential debate. To mark the occasion, his campaign hosted a debate watch party out of one of its official field offices in Midtown Manhattan.
The Bloomberg supporters who attended the watch party — who were overwhelmingly white, and over half of whom were over the age of 50 — told BuzzFeed News they believe that Bloomberg is the only candidate who can defeat Donald Trump. They believe that his success in business qualifies him as a serious candidate, but that unlike Trump, Bloomberg is honest and respectable.
“I think at the heart of it is that Bloomberg is honest and Trump is a crook,” Ingrid Devita, who attended the event, told BuzzFeed News. “If we have to have a battle of the billionaires, I’m picking Mike Bloomberg 100%.”
However, his supporters were definitely hoping for a better night.
One person expressed frustration that Bloomberg did not have better-prepared responses for points that he should have expected to come up. People cautiously said that Bloomberg began to recover after the second commercial break — although on Twitter, the consensus seemed to be that the former mayor was having a terrible night.
When BuzzFeed News asked Bloomberg’s presidential campaign staff who were present at the event how they thought the candidate was performing in Wednesday’s debate, they all said that he was doing well. However, their faces told a different story.
In an official statement, Bloomberg’s campaign said that he was “just warming up tonight.”
"It took Mike just 3 months to build a stronger campaign than the rest of the field had built in more than a year,” the statement says. “It took him just 45 minutes in his first debate in 10 years to get his legs on the stage.”
Bloomberg’s campaign has tried to paint Bloomberg as an ethical business executive. Multiple staffers, who spoke to watch party attendees informally before the debate, described Bloomberg as a successful CEO, mayor, and philanthropist. They also encouraged supporters to engage in “grassroots” efforts by phone banking, and to host “breakfast for Mike, tea for Mike, yoga for Mike, mahjong for Mike.”
“He’s not fundraising — he’s friendraising,” one Bloomberg staffer told attendees.
The campaign’s messages were attractive to people who attended the party.
Gregory Kuntashian — who said he hasn’t yet decided which candidate to support — told BuzzFeed News that Bloomberg appears to be strong enough to take on Donald Trump.
“He’s got that financial strength as a businessman to stand up to [Trump] and tell it like it is,” he said. “Maybe Bloomberg runs on a position of morality.”
Kitt Garrett, who attended the watch party, told BuzzFeed News that she is a registered Republican, but she’s open to a Bloomberg presidency, because she said he could govern with “ethics and morality.”
“I’m beyond horrified at what’s happening in this country,” Garrett said. “I look at my bank account and it’s great, but I’m worried about my children.”
Watch party attendee Pamela Teagarden told BuzzFeed News “the progressives scare me a bit” and that Bloomberg is an ideal moderate choice.
“I think Biden or Bloomberg would be a great choice,” Teagarden said. “Middle of the road people. My dream ticket would be Bloomberg and Stacey Abrams.”
As the debate started to wind down, a large glass jar that had been filled with “Mike Bloomberg 2020” pins was empty.
But only about half of the people who’d started the night in high spirits were still in the room.