The road to the White House is paved with dollars and coins. But in 2020, Mike Bloomberg is hoping to seal off that road from the competition with the steepest wall of cash ever spent by one person on an election in US history.
One of the richest people in the world, the media mogul and former New York mayor entered the race late, and with heaps of money, in an attempt to upend the normal campaign model and unseat Donald Trump. He has vowed to spend up to $1bn of his own wealth, though some reports have suggested he could double that.
His fortune has launched a campaign dripping in cash: showering hundreds of millions on adverts, hiring thousands of staffers with astonishing perks and creating a web of political patronage that has won him key endorsements. His money has now propelled him into the top tier of the Democratic race, leapfrogging rivals who have been trudging along on the traditional campaign trail for more than a year.
Bloomberg was assailed by Democratic challengers on the debate stage Wednesday night, but the question remains: can the richest campaign ever launched in the US really buy the White House?
Sarah Bryner, research director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said while wealth has always been a tool in elections, money is doing an outsized amount of work for Bloomberg. “He’s sort of changing the boundaries for what is possible,” she said.
In the first quarter of his campaign, Bloomberg spent $188m. When he entered the Democratic race in November, the then frontrunner, Joe Biden, had raised $59m in all of 2019. Latest figures released last week show Bloomberg has now spent $460m so far.
The bulk of that almost half a billion dollars is going to advertising. His ads blanket television markets and social media in a barrage of messaging. But the flood is carefully targeted too: he has spent $124m on ads in the 14 states that hold primaries on 3 March, known as Super Tuesday, when the most voters have an opportunity to show who they want to represent their party in the presidential election.
Wherever American eyeballs go, so goes the Bloomberg campaign. Bloomberg took the unprecedented step of buying a $10m, 60-second ad to run during the Super Bowl – the president announced he was doing the same hours later.
But it is not just ads. His vast wealth has created a campaign able to spend lavishly on itself, in stark contract to the usual bare-bolts style of most presidential efforts.
Bloomberg is subsidizing some campaign staff’s rent, workers have been issued the latest iPhones and MacBooks and their wages are high. At events, potential voters are given free feasts of steak sandwiches, smoked salmon and honeyed brie. The campaign has even hired hundreds of people in California to post positive things about Bloomberg on their social media accounts and to text their friends about him, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Spending the most money doesn’t guarantee a win, but Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, author of Political Brands, said for a politician, getting their name in front of people is invaluable. “The candidate who is willing to merchandise themselves is usually the candidate who wins,” said Torres-Spelliscy.
Recent polls indicate the spending is certainly helping. Bloomberg entered the race in November 2019 with 3% support. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed support for Bloomberg jumped to 14%, putting him behind only Bernie Sanders and Biden. He is leading in some states, such as Florida and Oklahoma.
That said, the short, mostly anecdotal data set about how wealthy candidates fare in presidential elections is not in Bloomberg’s favor.
In the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the candidates who spent the most money lost. Other mega-wealthy people who tried to buy their way to the presidency, such as Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, failed.
“A phenomenon that can happen is the rich person may be a party of one,” said Torres-Spelliscy, a law professor at Stetson University. “They have a lot of money to spend on their own campaign, but if they can’t connect with voters, they tend to fail.”
But of course, the history of rich people running for the White House does have one notable recent success: Donald Trump.
Cracks in the cash wall
As Bloomberg learned on the debate stage, even one of the wealthiest people in the world can’t always get what he wants. The former New York mayor was the main target of the other five Democratic candidates and he looked flustered as they volleyed brutal criticisms about his policies and past comments.
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren said in her opening remarks, reminding Bloomberg of his past insults to women and gay people.
Unlike most self-funded candidates, Bloomberg has a political history. He was New York’s mayor from 2002 to 2013, after convincing the city council to allow him a third term in office. The other former mayor in the Democratic primary, South Bend, Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg, ran a city of just 101,000 people.
This experience of being the mayor of one of the world’s biggest cities should be a boon, but it has also proved to be a pressure point because of the controversial policies he upheld.
Days before Bloomberg announced his run for president, he for the first time apologized for stop-and-frisk, a policing practice he expanded as mayor which disproportionately affected black people. He has not apologized for mass surveillance of Muslims by the New York police department under his mayorship. A lawsuit alleges he made sexist comments to female employees at Bloomberg, the media empire responsible for his $64.2bn fortune.
But it’s unclear whether those issues will actually filter to voters more often exposed to 30-second Bloomberg advertisements and the support he gets from prominent figures in their communities.
A web of patronage
Money has bought more than ads and a slick, well-fed staff, however. Bloomberg, a former Republican who supported George W Bush, has received dozens of endorsements from Democratic mayors and prominent supporters of liberal causes such as gun rights and the environment – causes he has poured money into as a philanthropist.
Bloomberg has spent at least $10bn on charitable and political pursuits, according to the New York Times. The year he announced his candidacy, his annual contribution number jumped to to $3.3bn – more than he had spent in the previous five years combined.
Since leaving the mayor’s office, Bloomberg has become the Democratic party’s most important political donor. He spent more than $100m to help Democrats win the House in the midterms and of the 21 newly elected lawmakers he backed, 15 were women.
With all that spending, Bryner said: “He has more credibility as a liberal candidate than he would otherwise.”
Much of that money has come through Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable arm of his company. The $350m he has spent through the group to support nearly 196 cities with grants and other types of funding has seemed to boost his reputation among US mayors, more than 100 of whom have endorsed his bid for president.
Three California mayors who announced they were backing Bloomberg in January, as his ads dominated the airwaves there, went through Bloomberg’s Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a training program for city mayors.
This includes San Francisco mayor London Breed, the city’s first black female mayor and his campaign’s chair of African Americans. Breed repeatedly had to defend Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and when asked about it, told NPR: “I think that unfortunately it occurred, and there isn’t a politician alive that hasn’t made a mistake, and their policy sometimes has led to a situation like this that has negatively impacted the African American community.”
Some have suggested this money has had a chilling effect, by silencing those who have benefited from his backing.
He has also donated money to Republicans. In 2012, he gave $1m to the state senate Republicans’ general fund, following earlier donations to state senators who helped make same-sex marriage legal in the state.
The other billionaire
The closest model for Bloomberg’s campaign is the billionaire who already occupies the Oval Office: Trump.
Trump is the only self-funded presidential candidate to do well in modern history.
But Trump relied heavily on wealthy donors and still spent less than his competitor, Hillary Clinton. He has yet to spend a dollar on his re-election campaign as donations pour in. Bloomberg’s campaign is Trump on steroids; it makes the effort to re-elect the president look tiny by comparison.
But that might not matter. A lesson of Trump’s run in 2016 was that money might not be the be-all and end-all of a political race.
“Trump was significantly outraised by Clinton, but it didn’t seem to matter,” said Bryner. “And I think people are still struggling to reconcile: did he buy the election? If so, wouldn’t you have expected him to lose since he didn’t have as much money as his opponent.”
A key issue with trying to buy the presidency is that if a candidate isn’t relying on small donors, it is more difficult to establish their actual popularity among the electorate. That’s why in normal election years, the parties would usually be leaning toward candidates who demonstrated how well-liked they are through many donations.
But half a billion dollars goes a long way in a US election. Torres-Spelliscy said: “He definitely has the wealth to put up an enormous fight – whether it is in the Democratic party or he makes it to the general.”