When Elizabeth Warren was emerging as a front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary last fall, Helen Springer enthusiastically contributed $100 to the liberal Massachusetts senator’s campaign.
“She was trending high,” said Springer, 75, of Kennett Square. “That didn’t last.”
Springer, a retired human resources administrator, has watched with dismay since then, concerned that none of the candidates who competed in Iowa and New Hampshire can win the nomination, unite the party, and defeat President Donald Trump in November.
But another candidate is giving her hope: Mike Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York and Republican-turned-Democrat, who was skipping the early-voting states and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on television commercials making the case that “Mike will get it done.”
“We Democrats have to be absolutely pragmatic. We have to be cold-eyed,” said Springer, who described her politics as “way way way way to the left.”
“We have to look at the situation we’re in and get behind somebody who can stand toe to toe with Trump,” said Springer who, like others interviewed for this article spoke last week. “It’s very uncertain right now. It’s really scary, and we’ve gotta have somebody who can take it all the way with Trump. Bloomberg, I think, can.”
Springer isn’t alone among Democratic voters in the Philadelphia suburbs. For some, the first votes this month have reinforced concerns that the party will nominate a candidate who can’t beat Trump in such battleground states as Pennsylvania that delivered him the White House in 2016.
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s lackluster performance so far has created a hunger for another moderate alternative to the leading progressive candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. And even some self-described progressive voters said they are open to Bloomberg, in part because they’re worried that the candidates running on more liberal platforms can’t win.
Democratic voters said their anxiety was exacerbated by Trump’s purge of some who testified in his impeachment trial, and tweets last week that raised the specter of his meddling in the sentencing recommendation for his convicted associate Roger Stone.
Add to that an unprecedented advertising blitz, and Bloomberg is getting a serious look from voters in the suburbs — a key region that helped Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in 2018 and where the party swept Republicans out of power in local elections last year. In a fluid nominating contest shaping up as a drawn-out fight, Pennsylvania’s April 28 primary could be critical. Voters in the suburbs could help determine the nominee, and in November they will form a crucial bloc in a state Trump won by less than 1% in 2016.
A Franklin and Marshall poll of Pennsylvania voters, taken in January before voting started, found Bloomberg with the support of 7% of Democrats — well behind Biden’s 22% but ahead of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the leading moderates who have competed in the early states. Newer national polls put Bloomberg in third place behind Sanders and Biden, according to an average of surveys tracked by RealClearPolitics.
Over the weekend, rival candidates treated Bloomberg like a threat, accusing him of trying to buy the election, blasting his record on race relations, and questioning his treatment of women over the years.
“There is a growing sentiment to take a closer look at what he might be able to bring to the whole campaign and what his presidency might look like,” said Dick Bingham, chairman of the Chester County Democratic Committee.
The Bloomberg campaign said that by this weekend, it will have opened field offices in Media, Langhorne, West Chester, and Ardmore — one in each of Philadelphia’s four collar counties. He already has offices in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, with the campaign on its way to almost 100 staffers in the state. Biden headquarters his national campaign in Philadelphia, but no Democrat besides Bloomberg has built up substantial Pennsylvania infrastructure of any kind.
Two days before Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, Marsha Peltz, vice chair of the Chester County Democrats, hosted about 25 people from across the region at her Malvern home for an informational session about Bloomberg. Among those who showed up were three self-identified Republicans, said Peltz, who is running to become a Bloomberg delegate at the Democratic convention.
“I see on the grassroots level how he’s uniting those Republicans that are looking for some place to go,” she said. Registered Republicans cannot vote in the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.
Bloomberg has spent more than $14 million on television and radio commercials in Pennsylvania, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm. No other Democratic candidate has bought airtime in Pennsylvania media markets.
“It’s gotten to the point of saturation,” said Ron Kolla, chairman of the Horsham Democratic Committee, in Montgomery County. “I’m on Facebook and he comes up in my Facebook feed. I’m driving to work, I’m listening to the radio, I hear him on the radio.
"It’s almost as if he’s the only candidate currently running in Pennsylvania,” Kolla said.
A few minutes after an interview, Kolla said he received a phone call from someone conducting a poll. It was paid for by the Bloomberg campaign.
An ad contrasting Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric with lofty speeches from such former presidents as John F. Kennedy caught the attention of Stephanie Mullen, 47, of Phoenixville. Mullen, who works for a nonprofit foundation, said she’s undecided on a candidate and in November will vote “blue no matter who.”
“I’m not quite as progressive as the Bernie crew and all of them,” she said, calling her top priority beating Trump.
Bloomberg is only starting to come under the kind of scrutiny his opponents have endured for months.
He has faced renewed criticism for his support, as mayor, of a policing policy known as stop and frisk, which a federal judge in 2013 ruled was unconstitutional and had led to “indirect racial profiling.” Bloomberg apologized for his position shortly before he announced his campaign in November — after vigorously defending it for years.
Some African American mayors and other elected officials have flocked to Bloomberg as Biden has struggled. It remains to be seen how black voters will ultimately weigh the legacy of stop and frisk in deciding whether to back him.
“I have problems with him, the stop and frisk,” said Spencer Lewis, 51, a digital marketing strategist who is black.
Lewis, of Whitpain Township, founded a local chapter of the anti-Trump group Indivisible after the 2016 election. He favors Warren and Sanders, and said his top priority was “getting rid of that kind of corporate money in Washington.”
Bloomberg, he said, is “part of that class that has too much influence in our government.”
Melissa Chargel, 43, of Whitpain, cited lobbying and money in politics as the biggest issue confronting the country: “I think we have Trump because things were already broken.”
Collecting signatures at a grocery store last week for her petition to become a Warren delegate, Chargel said Bloomberg’s candidacy was “tricky” for her. A mother of two daughters, ages 4 and 2, she said she was “terrified” by Trump’s election and got involved with the anti-gun-violence group Moms Demand Action. Friends she knows through that group support Bloomberg, she said. The nonpartisan organization is affiliated with the Bloomberg-financed group Everytown for Gun Safety.
“He has put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into gun violence,” Chargel said. “And that is a big issue for me, and I appreciate that.”
But she’s not comfortable with a campaign that Bloomberg’s opponents denounce as him trying to buy the election.
Like Lewis, Chargel said she’d vote for Bloomberg if he were the nominee.
Bloomberg’s best bet may be winning over Democrats discouraged by Biden’s shaky campaign.
“I’ve heard concern about Biden for months,” said Jill Zipin, a self-described moderate Democrat who is active in Montgomery County politics. Friends tell her of the 77-year-old Biden: “He seems older, more frail. He’s not the Biden of 10 years ago.” Bloomberg is 78.
Gary Wasserson, 63, a former communications-industry executive, and his wife hosted a gathering of about 80 friends at their Penn Valley home a few days after the Iowa caucuses, to hear a presentation from Bloomberg campaign officials.
“Virtually everybody who attended either loved the idea of Bloomberg or wanted to hear more about what he was doing,” Wasserson said. Upon hearing Bloomberg’s platform, he said, a close friend who voted for Trump and who has continued to support the president told him he would register as a Democrat and vote for Bloomberg in the primary.
“That shocked me,” he said.