Can money buy a presidential nomination? We’re about to find out.
After years of unconsummated flirtations and weeks of high-profile preparations, multibillionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg finally announced Sunday that he will be running for president in 2020, touting himself as a “new choice for Democrats” who is uniquely positioned to “[defeat] Donald Trump and [rebuild] America” by dint of his crossover appeal “as a doer and a problem solver.”
“With the right candidate we can turn areas from red to blue, and we need to do that all across this country,” Bloomberg said Monday at his first campaign stop in Norfolk, Va. “The stakes could not be higher. We must win this election.”
In the immediate aftermath of Bloomberg’s announcement, pundits ticked off all the ways in which the New Yorker is an almost comically bad fit for a contemporary Democratic Party that he aspires to save from itself, and perhaps even for the broader electorate he hopes to save from Trump.
He is a plutocrat at a time of rising populism. He is a Wall Street billionaire at a time when nothing fires up Democrats like bashing Wall Street billionaires. He is a poster boy of big-city, East Coast, nanny-state elitism at a time when a certain degree of small-town, Rust Belt sway seems to be the key to winning the Electoral College. He is a fiscal conservative at a time when neither party’s voters appear to care about debt and deficits. He is a 77-year-old white man at a time when the president and three of his leading Democratic rivals are all white septuagenarians. He is a longtime proponent of discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing — a position he conveniently disowned last week — at a time when Democrats are desperate for a candidate who can inspire black voters to turn out next November. And he has a long history of crude remarks about women — aka, a majority of Democratic primary voters — at a time when progressives have zero tolerance for such behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Observers have also pointed out that no mayor, and certainly no New York mayor, has ever gone directly to the White House, and that Bloomberg’s purported strategy of skipping the early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on winning the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states has failed miserably every other time it was tried. In 2008, it failed for Rudy Giuliani, another former New York mayor who was banking on a win in Florida but saw his huge polling lead there evaporate after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. In 1988, it failed for then-Sen. Al Gore, who ignored Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of Super Tuesday primaries across his home region, the South, but never gained enough momentum from those late victories to seriously contest the nomination. Meanwhile, since the start of the modern primary system in 1976, no eventual nominee has launched a campaign any later than August of the year before the election. It’s now almost December.
Yet neither Gore nor Giuliani nor any of those previous eleventh-hour candidates had what Bloomberg has in endless abundance: money. They might have been better fits for their respective parties at the moments they chose to run. They might have been more charismatic on the trail, or more skilled on the stump. But not one of them was the eighth-richest person in America, with a net worth of $53.4 billion.
That means Bloomberg’s candidacy will be the clearest test in American history of how much of a difference cold, hard cash can make — of how many obvious political obstacles it alone can overcome.
Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals are already attacking him for leveraging his vast personal fortune to upend the primary. “I understand rich people are going to have more shoes of the rest of us,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Monday in New Hampshire. “They’re going to have more cars than the rest of us. They’re going to have more houses. But they don’t get a bigger share of democracy. Especially in a Democratic primary.”
Yet what’s really striking is that Bloomberg and his team haven’t been shying away from the whole buying-the-election argument. “Mike is prepared to spend what it takes to defeat Donald Trump,” top adviser Howard Wolfson has said. So far, that means a $100 million digital ad campaign designed to attack and define Trump in the four battleground states most likely to decide the election (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin); a $15 million to $20 million voter registration drive targeting 500,000 Americans from underrepresented, Democratic-leaning groups; and a record-breaking $37 million television ad buy that will put 60-second biographical commercials on the air for a full week in more than two dozen states and roughly 100 media markets from California to Maine.
To put that in perspective, $37 million is more than all of Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals (other than his fellow billionaire Tom Steyer) have spent on TV ads this year, and about double what Sen. Cory Booker had raised in donations from February through the end of September. Bloomberg’s total initial investment of $150 million, meanwhile, is more than twice what the field’s leading fundraiser, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has raked in over the entire 2020 cycle. And when he was first considering a bid earlier this year, Bloomberg reportedly planned to spend at least $500 million on the primary alone — roughly $175 million more than the Trump campaign spent in 2016.
Those are staggering sums. The question now is what exactly Bloomberg’s ROI (return on investment) will be. Though his people say Democrats secretly crave a moderate contender who is more polished than Joe Biden and more prepared than Pete Buttigieg, Bloomberg’s poll numbers are abysmal. He is currently averaging 2.3 percent nationally, which puts him behind Andrew Yang, and 1 percent in Iowa, which puts him behind Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Even worse, the most recent CNN/Des Moines Register survey found that 58 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers viewed Bloomberg unfavorably, compared with only 19 percent who held a favorable view. No one else in the field was seen nearly as negatively.