After Bloomberg bombs in debate debut, will it sink him?

History tells us that one lousy debate performance rarely makes or breaks a candidate

Mike Bloomberg spent the past three months saturating airwaves across the country with $400 million worth of ads, enough to catapult him into third place in the hotly contested Democratic presidential election and secure him a spot on the Las Vegas debate stage.

But on Wednesday night, in his first nationally televised presidential debate, the three-time New York City mayor risked losing those early gains.

Bloomberg, who bore the brunt of attacks from progressives and moderates alike, stumbled through the ninth Democratic debate, appearing detached, unprepared for the expected attacks and out of touch with American voters.

The razing of Bloomberg began within minutes of the debate, with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivering a scathing takedown of the 78-year-old billionaire: "I'd like to talk about who we're running against: a billionaire who calls women 'fat broads' and 'horse-faced lesbians,'" she began. "And no, I'm not talking about Donald Trump, I'm talking about Mayor Bloomberg."


He offered a questionable reason for why he hasn't released his tax returns yet — "I can't go to TurboTax," he quipped, unintentionally highlighting the astronomical gap between his own fortune and the average American — and struggled to counter attacks from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Warren on his warm embrace of stop-and-frisk, the controversial policing strategy that disproportionately targeted men of color.

"If I go back and look at my time in office, the one thing I am really worried about, embarrassed about, is how it turned out with stop-and-frisk," he said. But the comment, which stopped short of a full apology, left an opening for Biden to argue that "it's not whether he apologized or not. It's the policy. The policy was abhorrent."

Bloomberg, Warren and Sanders participate in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Bloomberg's campaign tried to put a positive spin on his debate performance; in an email to reporters after the event concluded, his campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said Bloomberg had maintained his cool, despite drawing attacks from all the candidates who "came to destroy Mike."

"It took Mike just three months to build a stronger campaign than the rest of the field had built in more than a year. It took him just 45 minutes in his first debate in 10 years to get his legs on the stage,” Sheekey said. "He was just warming up tonight. We fully expect Mike will continue to build on tonight's performance when he appears on the stage in South Carolina next Tuesday."

Of course, if history tells us anything, it's that one night or one misstep rarely makes or breaks a candidate.

In 1992, then-Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton lost 10 of the first 11 states until he found his footing in the South, securing a big win in Georgia. A Super Tuesday blowout catapulted him to an insurmountable delegate lead, according to RealClearPolitics. His victory remains an anomaly among other contenders: He's the only person to have won the nomination after losing in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that Bloomberg did not compete in.


Other candidates have also stumbled in debate performances, occurrences that, with the benefit of hindsight, were just mere blips on their way to becoming president.

In 2012, Democrat Barack Obama faced off against Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who absolutely trounced the incumbent president. Reports at the time painted Obama as disengaged, uninterested and annoyed at having his record challenged. "How Obama's debate plan bombed," read one headline from Politico; "Mitt Romney comes out on top as Obama stumbles in first debate," another read.

President George W. Bush faced a similar situation in 2004, during his first debate battling Democratic challenger John Kerry.

As the Los Angeles Times wrote, he became "an object of scorn and near-pity for some voters watching his first debate…Sitting amid a group of 100 swing voters who assembled to watch the debate at a college auditorium in Pennsylvania, I heard some laugh. Others shook their heads in dismay, as the president smirked or stammered and groped for words—particularly as he tried to defend the troublesome war in Iraq."


It's hard to say how, or if, Bloomberg’s debate performance will affect his poll numbers: According to an aggregate of polls conducted before the debate by RealClearPolitics, he's in third place nationally. Sanders has a commanding, double-digit lead, and Biden is in second.

Bloomberg has solid name recognition and a $60 billion fortune that he's freely spending in the 14 states that will cast their ballots on Super Tuesday, March 3. Candidates need 1,991 delegates to become the Democratic nominee; a combined 1,344, or about one-third of the total, will be allotted on Super Tuesday alone.

And on Thursday morning, Bloomberg added to his arsenal of endorsements, capturing the support of three House Democrats: Josh Gottheimer from New Jersey; Nita Lowey from New York and Pete Aguilar from California.