Michael Bloomberg’s move to enter the Democratic presidential race could hurt the prospects of Joe Biden, as the former vice-president and early frontrunner struggles in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has long contemplated entering the race. But he opted not to enter the fray earlier this year because Mr Biden, the best-known moderate in the field, appeared to have strong support based on polls, and his early fundraising had eased concerns about his financial viability in the race.
But over the past two months, Mr Biden has seen his support slip, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, has eked out a consistent lead. He has also fallen in the fundraising, after raking in $9m less last quarter than Ms Warren.
“Bloomberg damages Biden the most because it is just another articulation of just how badly Biden is doing that he is even contemplating getting into the race,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton and Mr Biden, now at Brunswick Group.
“If it was his overarching concern that the top three contenders cannot beat Donald Trump, then by getting into the race he is making Warren stronger and erasing his overall goal,” she added.
Mr Bloomberg, 77, has told friends that he does not think Ms Warren can beat Mr Trump because her progressive policies would alienate moderate Democrats and independents. But analysts and Democratic strategists said his entry into the race would eat into Mr Biden’s support and raise the odds that she wins the nomination.
Jim Manley, a former top Democratic congressional aide, said Mr Bloomberg would hurt Mr Biden, and should “give up on this ridiculous idea” that he can beat Mr Trump.
“The arrogance of this guy to think that what the Democratic party needs right now is a billionaire to come in at almost the last minute to save us is breathtaking, and wrong,” Mr Manley said.
With his wealth, Mr Bloomberg should be able to build a ground operation, particularly in later-voting states where the candidates have not yet hired big teams. He also has the resources to pour into California, which has become more important in the 2020 race by moving its primary earlier, to March, and where expensive TV ads are critical.
While he would win some Democrats over his support for tackling climate change and gun control, many experts questioned if he could win the nomination when another old, moderate white man was struggling with a base fired up by the progressive agenda of Ms Warren and, in Iowa, Pete Buttigieg, the moderate mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“Bloomberg is a household name, but it’s not clear what political base he has,” said Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections. “I don’t see many Democratic primary voters with a deep desire for another old white guy to enter the race.”
One person who has previously worked with Mr Bloomberg on political efforts said his strategy “has to be based on Biden becoming a non-factor”, to ensure that his run for the nomination did not just end up handing the nomination to Ms Warren.
Ms Warren and Mr Sanders both used his likely entry into the race to remind their supporters that he was a billionaire — the kind of person that they are both railing against in their campaigns. Ms Warren has proposed a wealth tax that would raise two cents on each dollar of assets a person owned beyond a threshold of $50m.
Mr Bloomberg even drew ridicule from Mr Trump, who said the former mayor would “hurt” Mr Biden. “There’s nobody I’d rather run against than Little Michael,” said Mr Trump. “He doesn’t have the magic to do well . . . Little Michael will fail.”
One Democratic strategist said it was unclear how he would build the kind of broad coalition needed in a party where African-Americans are a key part of the base. “He has no appeal with African-Americans, Hispanics, working class whites and young people.”
In debating his prospects with friends, Mr Bloomberg has expressed concern about his ability to win black voters — a critical part of the Democratic electorate that has helped buffer Mr Biden from the rising support for Ms Warren in states such as South Carolina.
In New York, Mr Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policing policies became a lightning rod in black and Hispanic communities, and helped vault his progressive successor, Bill DeBlasio, into office. But supporters argue that the issue has been exaggerated.
“If he didn’t have any support from that community he wouldn’t have been elected mayor three times,” said one former aide, adding that many black voters would flock to the candidate with the best chance of “removing the racist from the White House.”
Another question is whether Mr Bloomberg has the stamina and tolerance for a gruelling campaign that involves lots of visits to diners, handshaking and taking selfies with voters. Questions about age have re-emerged as voters scrutinise Mr Biden and after Mr Sanders, 79, suffered a heart attack last month.
“He hasn’t been through the rigours of a national campaign,” said one person who has previously worked with Mr Bloomberg on political efforts. “He is used to moving from one mansion to another in his own world and will suddenly have to do something very different. He will do what it takes, but it will be a challenge for him.”
While his challenges to emerge from a big Democratic primary are well documented, Mr Bloomberg’s supporters said he would not have decided to run unless the data showed a genuine chance. “If he’s going to move forward it’s because there is numerically and mathematically a way to make this happen,” said one supporter.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi