Campaigns & Elections

How will Bloomberg perform on the debate stage?

It’s not his first time at the rodeo, after all.

Michael Bloomberg in Texas in February.

Michael Bloomberg in Texas in February. Mike Bloomberg/Flickr

On Wednesday night, the rest of the country will get to know former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a little bit better. 

Bloomberg has met the polling requirements needed to make it into the Democratic debate in Nevada – his first, and one of the last before the Democratic nominee is selected. Bloomberg’s campaign has taken off within the relatively short amount of time that he's been in the running. He’s winning over black and Latino voters, his memes are going viral and he’s spending big bucks to bombard voters across the country with his campaign ads. How he performs during the Democratic debate is likely to influence how much further he’ll rise in the polls. 

“You know me: I like a fight, and so I think it’d be fun to go and compete,” Bloomberg said during an interview in Detroit recently. “I always thought that was fun to joust,” he added, comparing the upcoming debate to the somewhat tense press conferences he held throughout his mayoral tenure.

Bloomberg’s team has been vigorously prepping the ex-mayor for the Wednesday night debate over the past few months and has even been holding mock debates. They’re expecting him to weather an onslaught of criticism during the debate, most likely regarding his controversial mayoral record and campaign strategy. “We are expecting that he is going to have a lot of attention on him – he’s going to be attacked,” a Bloomberg official told Politico. 

The debate will be Bloomberg’s first since 2009, when he was running for his third term as mayor of New York City against then-New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson – and he only participated in about eight mayoral debates from 2001 to 2009. It has already been speculated that Bloomberg is at risk of faltering on the debate stage as he is prone to getting irritated by questions he finds unintelligent or unwarranted. In 2009, he became noticeably peeved when a reporter in a wheelchair accidentally had his recording device start playing during a press conference.

During his mayoral campaigns, Bloomberg did not participate in more debates or speeches than what was required of him and on one occasion did not show up for a NY1-hosted mayoral debate at the Apollo Theater in 2009. However, public affairs strategist Roberto Ramirez – who ran the mayoral campaigns of Bloomberg’s Democratic competitors in 2001, 2005 and 2009 – told City & State that Bloomberg should not be dismissed.

“Prior to 2001, before billionaire Bloomberg launched his media blitz, no one knew who he was and he wasn't a public persona,” Ramirez recounted. “So when he had to debate (the 2001 Democratic mayoral candidate) Mark Green, everyone expected that Mark Green was going to sweep the floor with him. Supposedly, Bloomberg didn't have any substantive knowledge of policy or politics. I was sitting at the debate that day as a guest and Michael Bloomberg surprised a lot of people.”

While some might imagine Bloomberg to be a combative debater, George Arzt, the president of George Arzt Communications who worked with Bloomberg while he was mayor, told City & State that Bloomberg doesn’t care much for quarrelling. “He's not someone who likes to argue or who is used to people coming at him so this (debate) will be interesting to watch,” he said. “But if he can stay calm and and just deliver on the facts, he will do okay.”

Luckily for Bloomberg, delivering the facts is his strong suit. Upon reviewing mayoral debates from 2001, 2005 and 2009, Bloomberg is quick on the draw when it comes to whipping out statistics and budget breakdowns to defend his arguments.

One of the ex-mayor’s biggest hurdles, however, may be his ability to shake off his stiff demeanor and appear affable to a national audience unfamiliar with his past public appearances. 

“He's introducing himself to the nation tomorrow night and combat is only one note that he has to sing,” Andrew Kirtzman, who covered city politics during Bloomberg’s tenure and then worked under his schools chancellor, told City & State on Tuesday. “He's got to make himself attractive to people on an emotional level and he's not an emotive man.”

But Arzt believes that Bloomberg will show a little more of his personality during Wednesday’s debate. “I think that Mike, personally, can be very funny,” Arzt said. “I've never seen that at a public event, but I think that in this debate, he’ll probably have some humor to make him look a little human.”

More than anything, Bloomberg needs to make a lasting impression if he wants to proceed any further, according to Ramirez. “Michael Bloomberg's ability to self finance has gotten him visibility but him being on that stage means that he now needs to bring the substance of a candidate,” Ramirez said. “His ability to do that or his failure to do will largely determine where he stands in his presidential campaign. I would not dismiss him but I would say that the bar is rather high for him right now.”