The great fear for establishment Democrats right now is that he’s *not* starting to collapse, merely beginning to fade. Dem leaders can tolerate Mike Bloomberg beating Bernie for the nomination; they can also tolerate Mike Bloomberg quickly imploding, clearing a path for Biden to win on Saturday and emerge as the great centrist hope against Sanders next week on Super Tuesday.

What they can’t tolerate is a zombie Bloomberg candidacy, one where Bloomy pulls enough votes away from Biden to hold Joe down but not enough to threaten Sanders himself. More than anything else, they need to resolve the so-called “muddle in the middle” immediately. And since Bloomberg’s debate performance last night was neither great nor terrible, it’s unlikely they’ll get that.

Nate Silver looks at today’s polling and sees Mayor Mike slowly transforming into the walking dead:

One week ago today, Bloomberg was at 16.1 percent nationally, within two points of Biden for second place. Then the polls started registering Democratic voters’ poor opinion of his debate performance last Tuesday night. He’s now slipped to 14.4 percent, with Biden beginning to rebound slightly. Same story in North Carolina, where Bloomy has slipped two points over the past five days and now sits in third place, slightly behind Biden. The big delegate prize on Super Tuesday is California, though, a state where Bloomberg should be especially formidable. It costs mega-bucks to advertise in all of CA’s fantastically expensive media markets; conveniently, Bloomberg has mega-mega-mega bucks.

But behold the orange line:

A week ago, Bloomy had climbed six points in just a few days and seemed en route to giving Bernie a real fight for the state. Then the Nevada debate happened. He’s lost nearly four points since then and momentarily finds himself in fourth place, behind Biden and even Elizabeth Warren. But the numbers are even worse than they look: Remember that 15 percent is an important metric in the Democratic primaries since that’s the threshold each candidate needs to meet in individual precincts to qualify for delegates in that precinct. Right now, in the most delegate-rich state in the country, Bernie’s the one and only candidate who’s poised to qualify in most precincts. He could blow the roof off in California next week, digging an even deeper hole for the second-place candidate nationally in trying to erase his delegate lead before the convention.

Here’s the latest poll out of California. Same trend:

Only Bernie is north of 15 percent. All Bloomberg is accomplishing here is depriving Biden and maybe Buttigieg and Warren of votes they’d otherwise receive in the quest for viability. (This isn’t even the worst poll of California lately for him. An NPR survey published a few days ago had Sanders at 36 percent and Bloomy at … five.) He hasn’t endeared himself to Democrats nationally lately either:

The real killer for establishment Democrats is that it’s probably too late to do anything about this. Even if Bloomberg threw in the towel today, early voting in California began weeks ago. Many votes that Biden needs for a respectable showing are already banked for Bloomy. What now?

One more result for you to illustrate the agonizing bind in which centrist Dems find themselves:

Without Bloomberg, Texas is probably a Biden state. With Bloomberg in it and siphoning off Biden votes (he’s in double digits there in all the recent polling), Joe’s in real danger of seeing it slip away to Sanders.

South Carolina will provide some clarity this weekend, but like Silver says, the “clarity” likely means doom for Bloomberg either way. If Bernie pulls the upset he’ll be unstoppable. If Biden hangs on then he’s the last best hope of the centrists, not Bloomberg. It’s unthinkable that Bloomberg would drop out before Super Tuesday after having spent so much money to compete there but there must be establishment Dems pleading with him to drop out afterward and fund an anti-Bernie Super PAC if he finishes behind Biden. Would Bloomy consider that? Things are getting increasingly nasty between him and Sanders:

A top adviser said Bernie Sanders would reject an offer from Mike Bloomberg to spend heavily on his behalf in the general election if Sanders wins the Democratic presidential nomination…

“It’s a hard no,” Weaver told NBC News after Tuesday night’s debate. “Bernie has said he’s going to fund his presidential campaign with small-dollar contributions, and I think we can do that. I think we can raise over a billion dollars in small-dollar contributions.”

Sanders cannot control or dictate what independent groups do on his behalf since campaign finance law prohibits candidates from coordinating strategy with outside groups. But Bloomberg’s team has said the mogul would not spend on behalf of a candidate who rejected his help.

“Bernie said he didn’t want [Bloomberg’s] money, so we’re not going to. I don’t think it would be prudent to spend on behalf of somebody who didn’t want it,” Howard Wolfson, a senior adviser to Bloomberg, told NBC News after the debate.

Bernie can’t stop Bloomberg from funding an anti-Trump Super PAC that works on his behalf but Bloomberg’s surely not eager to pour money into an effort to elect a socialist, no matter how much he may disdain Trump. Sanders’s “thanks but no thanks” here is Mike’s opportunity to break his promise to spend for the Democratic nominee and blame Bernie for it by claiming that he’s simply complying with Sanders’s wishes. Spiteful on both ends.

And so, to repeat: If Bloomberg can’t win the nomination himself, as seems increasingly clear, and if he’s committed to trying to stop a socialist takeover of the party, why not quit after Super Tuesday and bankroll Biden?

Here he is last night going for the throat with Bernie. At least the guy’s trying to win, unlike some people.