But if Bloomberg’s huge fortune fuels a strong campaign, it also makes him a perfect foil for Sanders. Most of Sanders’s speech in Durham yesterday was devoted to a litany of his proposed policies, including Medicare for All, ending the War on Drugs, forgiving student-loan debt, and raising taxes, but he started out with an unmistakable broadside directed at his new rival.
“People realize there is a corrupt political system that allows billionaires to buy elections,” Sanders said. “We may be old-fashioned, but we believe in democracy—one person, one vote, not billionaires buying elections.”
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Bloomberg, who has promised more evolution than revolution, offered his own implicit rebuke of Sanders’s aggressive platform. “Unlike other candidates, I don’t just talk about things,” he said, citing his achievements as mayor of New York.
In focusing their rhetoric on each other, Sanders and Bloomberg are both making a pragmatic calculation. Based on recent polling, many analysts see the race headed for collision between the socialist senator and the centrist ex-mayor. But the strategy of treating the race as already narrowed to two entails risks. As measured by delegates, Buttigieg still has a lead over Sanders. Even with lower poll numbers in some upcoming states, Buttigieg remains a threat. Sanders also still has to contend with Elizabeth Warren, who has reported $6 million in new fundraising since Iowa. Bloomberg has even more work to do consolidating his support. He still splits the non-Sanders moderate vote with Biden, who is down but not out; Buttigieg; and a surging Klobuchar. Bloomberg hasn’t yet proved that he can clear the lane.
The contrast between Bloomberg and Sanders was clear long before either candidate stepped onstage. Bloomberg spoke before a graying crowd that listened to piped-in U2 and Fatboy Slim. In Durham, Bowerbirds, a beloved local indie band, opened for a younger, more casual crowd. If blue hair abounded in Raleigh, the coifs in Durham were more likely to be pink, green, or purple. Bloomberg’s crowd was overwhelmingly white. The supporters who flocked to hear Sanders were more diverse, although the crowd still didn’t reflect the demographics of Democratic-primary voters in the state, a third of whom were black in 2016.
Sanders’s supporters are famously avid. Some 2,200 crowded into a hotel ballroom, with others in an overflow space. Lezlie Sumpter told me that she and her son, a student at the University of North Carolina, had arrived at 5:15 a.m. and waited for four hours in near-freezing temperatures to get into the event. John Gore, a political-science student at North Carolina Central University, was fourth in line, arriving at 6:15. After getting shut out of a full venue for a 2016 Sanders event, he was taking no chances this time.