Michael Bloomberg is everywhere – except on debate stage

Why We Wrote This

As a self-made billionaire spends unprecedented sums to boost his own candidacy, the larger story may be how little money can buy in politics.

Timothy Gardner/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg introduces his climate plan in Alexandria, Virginia, on Dec. 13, 2019. Aiming to kick-start his last-minute candidacy, the self-made billionaire and philanthropist is spending at a record pace on ads.

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Michael Bloomberg isn’t just a billionaire candidate. He’s also a record-setting one. In his recently announced bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Bloomberg’s ad spending of more than $100 million is already nearly twice the personal funds that Donald Trump spent on his entire 2016 campaign. 

Mr. Bloomberg’s ads are ubiquitous in major states like California, where other leading Democratic candidates will appear at a televised debate tonight. His positioning as a moderate is a tough sell to party faithful, despite his focus on gun control and climate change. But some political analysts say it’s too soon to rule him out, given the possibility that key rivals might stumble in early primary elections.

Still, the road to elected office is littered with self-financing candidates who lost. Since Texas billionaire Ross Perot ran in 1992, a half-dozen presidential candidates have contributed more than $1 million to their races. Only Mr. Trump was victorious.

“Money is never enough on its own. Candidates still need to have all of the other pieces of the puzzle: charisma, connection to voters, good ideas, a good campaign operation,” says Sheila Krumholz of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Michael Bloomberg, the last-minute entrant to the Democratic presidential primary, won’t appear on the debate stage in Los Angeles on Thursday. But he’s all over California, Texas, and other Super Tuesday states, where viewers can see him in an unprecedented ad campaign that outspends all of his party competitors – combined.

The ads are everywhere, clustered around game shows like “Jeopardy,” news and late-night talk programs, soap operas, and football. They underscore an unconventional campaign that is skipping the “first four” states to concentrate instead on the delegate-rich ones that follow in March. They also highlight in big green dollar signs the record-breaking sums that this multi-billionaire is pouring into his self-financed campaign, raising the question of whether an election can be “bought.”

Actually, there’s widespread agreement on that one. From the Bloomberg campaign itself to political savants and the track record of history, the acknowledged truth is that, while money sure can help, it is no guarantee of victory. Not even close. The road to elected office is littered with failed campaigns of the super wealthy.

“Money is never enough on its own. Candidates still need to have all of the other pieces of the puzzle: charisma, connection to voters, good ideas, a good campaign operation,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in elections.

On the other hand, unlimited resources are a “big plus,” says Ms. Krumholz. They will allow Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, to fund an extensive field operation and give him an “immediate surge” in his ability to get his message out and introduce himself to voters.

That surge is reflected in opinion polls, where the Real Clear Politics average has the self-made businessman and philanthropist at 5% support among Democrats nationally. That’s fifth place behind Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. Interestingly, the other self-made billionaire in the race, Tom Steyer, is stuck at less than 2%.

Still, Mr. Bloomberg has a track record of success and a Super Tuesday oriented strategy that some political analysts say could prove viable if key rivals stumble.

Tough history of billionaire candidates

Forbes calculates Mr. Bloomberg’s wealth at $55.7 billion, one of the richest people on the planet. His spending on ads so far – more than $100 million, according to Advertising Analytics – is nearly twice the personal funds that Donald Trump spent on his 2016 campaign. (President Trump’s tally was $66.1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, but he also benefited from billions of dollars’ worth of media attention, so-called earned media.)

Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant in Texas, where Mr. Bloomberg has campaigned and is also advertising in expensive media markets, says it’s entirely possible the latecomer could double or triple what he’s spent so far on the primary, and put out $1 billion or $2 billion for a general election. “We’ve never seen funding at that level.”

But warning signs for such a candidacy abound. Voters tend to be highly suspicious of money in politics, says Garry South, a longtime Democratic consultant in California. “They kind of resent rich candidates who pop out of nowhere and spend unlimited amounts of money.”

Since Texas billionaire Ross Perot funded most of his losing presidential bid in 1992, a half-dozen presidential candidates have contributed more than $1 million to their races. Only Mr. Trump was victorious.

California is itself a showcase for failed self-funded candidates seeking executive office. An exception is Republican celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor who tossed $5 million of his own money into a recall election that was a special circumstance – involving no primary and 135 names on the ballot.

Mr. South questions whether Mr. Bloomberg can build the necessary field operation in California or generate enough enthusiasm among base voters. The billionaire governed New York for three terms as a Republican and only registered as a Democrat last year. He was strongly supported by his GOP predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani – now the Democrats’ villain – and has donated to Republican candidates. His “stop and frisk” policy as mayor angered Democrats, though he recently said he was wrong and apologized.

And then there’s the mere fact of his wealth – at a time when candidates like Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are railing against millionaires and billionaires.

“I think it’s very difficult for a candidate like Bloomberg to set up a real ground organization in California,” Mr. South says. “You have to do it with Democrat activists. You can’t do it with rent-a-maids. And there’s no reason for Democratic activists to be interested in his candidacy.”

Could this time be different?

The Bloomberg campaign is well aware that history is not on its side when it comes to self-funding campaigns.

“Overwhelmingly, they lose,” admits Marc LaVorgna, a spokesman for the campaign. But, he counters, Mr. Bloomberg is an “outlier” who has proved he can win “again and again in the largest progressive city in the country, in New York City, and can govern extremely effectively, with high marks from New Yorkers, who are frankly tough graders.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s entry into the race less than a month ago precludes a run in the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. Instead, his unorthodox strategy is to simultaneously and immediately run two parallel campaigns. One is a primary effort that targets states in March and April where Democratic competitors are not presently focused, but which hold more than 65% of the delegates needed to win the nomination. The other is a general election campaign in battleground states where President Trump “has had a free run,” says Mr. LaVorgna.

Unlimited resources allow the campaign to go head-to-head with President Trump on digital advertising, and to widely distribute Mr. Bloomberg’s story as an entrepreneur (he made his money on the “Bloomberg terminal” used by investors worldwide), a mayor, and a philanthropist. His ads portray him as a doer who has won battles with the gun lobby, coal, and tobacco – and who can beat President Trump.

In his campaign talks, he addresses his wealth head-on, saying he plows most of the profits from his business into his causes and was a self-made man who grew up in a Boston suburb where the most his dad ever earned was $6,000 in a year.

Amid the focus on Mr. Bloomberg’s eye-popping ad buys, his spending paints a much broader picture. His “Everytown for Gun Safety” initiative has connected him with activists all over the country. Last year he spent extensively on electing House Democrats, and this cycle is putting up to $20 million into a voter registration drive, primarily aimed at minority voters.

One mayor’s endorsement

Support for a mayoral training program at Harvard University has graduated a nationwide network of mayors who know him, including Michael Tubbs, the progressive African American known for testing “universal basic income” in Stockton, California.

Last week, Mayor Tubbs endorsed Mr. Bloomberg during a visit to the Golden State in which the New Yorker also talked with former Gov. Jerry Brown at a climate event in San Francisco. The popular former governor did not endorse him, but the two launched a climate initiative together in 2017.

Analysts call Mr. Bloomberg’s unusual campaign a long shot that can only work if no clear front-runner emerges before Super Tuesday, which is March 3. Clearly, he is running in the moderate lane. Mr. South believes he could end up as a power broker at the Democratic convention, perhaps with 200 or 300 delegates who could be deployed to prevent the nomination of liberals like Senators Warren or Sanders.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, another experienced observer of California and presidential politics, is not closing the book on Mr. Bloomberg.

“Normally, I would say his strategy is risky. It still may be,” she says. But the four top leaders – notably fellow moderates like Mr. Biden and Mr. Buttigieg – could all emerge “bloodied” from the early states. Given his resources, record on some core issues that Democrats care about, and his three wins in New York, “he ain’t just walking precincts.”

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