Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone founder and Wall Street powerhouse, was not ready to predict victory for Michael Bloomberg in next year’s presidential election — let alone the Democratic primary race.
But with the rumblings last week that Mr Bloomberg, a fellow New York billionaire, was preparing to enter the race, he thrilled to the idea that a candidate was at last rallying to the capitalist cause in a contest he worries has drifted dangerously to the left.
“I think this was a very bad day for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders because Mike’s understanding of the real economy is such that I don’t see how some of the policies of those other people can survive,” Mr Schwarzman told columnist Thomas Friedman during an interview at the 92nd Street Y in New York. “I think he will dent their momentum by force of logic and reason.”
Kyle Bass, the hedge fund manager, was similarly effusive. “I love what he did with New York as mayor,” Mr Bass, founder of Hayman Capital, which is based in Dallas, told the Financial Times. “Bloomberg is rational and a centrist and a competent businessman. He would make great decisions for our country.”
Since then, Mr Schwarzman and Mr Bass have been given another business-friendly option: Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital partner who tossed his own cap into the ring this week.
The late stirrings — less than three months before the voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire — reflect the desperation among some Democrats, particularly on Wall Street and inside the Washington Beltway — for a white knight to save them from an otherwise unsatisfying crop of candidates.
“Establishment Democrats look at the top four and they are worried that they are either too left [Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders], too old [Joe Biden] or too young [Pete Buttigieg],” said Ken Baer, a former Obama administration official and founder of Crosscut Strategies, a consultancy in Washington. “In a world where most Democrats feel like a second Trump term would be apocalyptic, this worries people.”
Assuming it goes forward, a Bloomberg campaign would not be designed to lend succour to the US financial industry but to offer pragmatic solutions to issues like gun control and climate change on which the former mayor has a long record — and to dislodge a president he views as a grave threat.
Still, by virtue of his background, he offers unique comfort to Wall Street. The former Salomon Brothers trader built his fortune with the invention of a miraculous machine that has become the fabric of the financial industry, linking traders across Wall Street and allowing them to both easily communicate and access reams of data. As mayor, he helped rebuild New York after the September 11 terror attacks left many doubtful of its future.
Mr Bloomberg’s success is such that he is a mogul whom other moguls look up to. (Another reason financiers may like him, an observer quipped, is because he is the only candidate who won’t have to ask them for money.)
“He’s very well liked on Wall Street. He built his fortune understanding Wall Street,” one admirer said. Their ardour for Mr Bloomberg may be even more intense at a time when Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive, and other industry leaders complain about being vilified by politicians for their success.
Even before Mr Bloomberg tipped his hand, Wall Street donors — alarmed at the rise of Ms Warren — were taking a closer look at Mr Buttigieg as an alternative to the flagging Biden campaign.
Yet in this political climate, Wall Street’s adoration may be less a form of validation for a Democratic candidate than a curse.
After Mr Bloomberg filed paperwork in Alabama in preparation to join the race, Ms Warren welcomed him with a link to her wealth tax calculator. She then tweeted a link to a Vox article that said Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, had urged Mr Bloomberg to seek the presidency in March.
“One billionaire calls another billionaire and asks him to run for president — I’m shocked! Here’s the deal: Companies like Amazon have too much power, and billionaires like @JeffBezos and @MikeBloomberg should pitch in so that everyone can succeed,” she wrote.
This week, Ms Warren released a new video touting her wealth tax plan and blasting billionaires including Leon Cooperman, Joe Ricketts, Lloyd Blankfein and Peter Thiel. “Pitch in 2 cents so everybody else gets a chance,” she said in the advertisement.
The early response to a Bloomberg campaign has been negative. The hometown New York Post published a front-page story noting that Mr Bloomberg was the most disliked Democratic candidate in the field.
“Who wants a billionaire in your party to go in and take the nomination?” asked Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic strategist. Of the financial industry’s desires, he added: “What Wall Street wants isn’t relevant in the Democratic primary.”
Still, Mr Sheinkopf professed “tremendous faith” in Mr Bloomberg. “He was elected mayor, and he wasn’t supposed to be. He was re-elected, and he wasn’t supposed to be. He started out as a middle-income person in Medfield, Massachusetts, and became one of the wealthiest people in the world.”
Inside the Bloomberg universe, loyalists acknowledge their leader’s shortcomings. He is a poor campaigner and will have to explain a “stop-and-frisk” policing policy that has alienated black and Hispanic voters.
Still, they retain a faith built up over many years, through many fights, and reject the idea that his would be another billionaire vanity campaign.
“Mike’s a data and a numbers guy. If he’s going to move forward, it’s because there is numerically and mathematically a way to make this happen,” a former aide said. “There’s a pathway.”
Some of the relevant numbers are polls over the summer showing that the current crop of Democrats would face tough races against Mr Trump in the battleground states that decided the 2016 election.
Bloomberg advisers also believe that the party’s leftward tilt may be overstated. Their strategy, then, will be to appeal to moderates based on Mr Bloomberg’s record of accomplishments — not mere rhetoric — and the conviction that he is unique among the field in his ability to beat Mr Trump.
“It’s not just enough to come out with a moderate platform,” said Jason Schechter, a Bloomberg spokesman, calling this election “unique” in modern times for Democratic voters’ desperation to choose a candidate they are confident will win the general election.
Because of Mr Bloomberg’s late start, his campaign would skip the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which winning candidates traditionally use as a springboard to generate momentum and unlock more cash from donors, and instead focus all their energy on the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3 when voters in California and Texas and a dozen other states go to the polls.
Unlike Mr Patrick, his wealth and organisation will allow Mr Bloomberg to campaign in all those states from the get-go. On Friday, even before formally entering the race, Mr Bloomberg launched a $100m online advertising campaign to target Mr Trump in battleground states.
Still, the Super Tuesday blitz is a little-tested, all-or-nothing strategy.
Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist at Dewey Square Group in Boston, was sceptical it would work. “What voters will see is an element of arrogance — the first states really prize getting to know the candidates and vetting them for the rest of the country,” Ms Marsh said.
More broadly, she did not sense a yearning among rank-and-file Democratic voters for another establishment candidate like Mr Bloomberg or Mr Patrick — particularly so late in the game. “I’m not sure either of these will be the saviour everyone is looking for,” she said.
Mr Sheinkopf deemed Mr Bloomberg’s challenge “difficult but not impossible”.
Whatever the outcome, if he chooses to run Mr Bloomberg will have earned further admiration from the titans of Wall Street — whether he wants it or not.
“If Mike runs and he loses, what he’s doing — and what he will have done — is protect the country from extreme views, which are not grounded in anything other than ideology,” Mr Schwarzman said. “And that is a wonderful thing as a legacy to have done.”
Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan in New York