Michael Bloomberg’s rise in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary campaign is fueled by an unprecedented torrent of cash that has enabled the financial-media tycoon to hide behind a $360 million advertising curtain. This “Wizard of Oz” campaign has allowed Bloomberg to leapfrog the other candidates all while evading scrutiny, since his omnipresence on the airwaves and online has drowned out almost everything else about him.
Bloomberg skipped Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina while the other candidates faced direct scrutiny from voters and the press there for months. He avoided the debates because he refuses to raise small donor cash to qualify ― something billionaire Tom Steyer has shown can be done quickly if you’re that rich. And he can bypass the media by turning his cash cannon to blanket the airwaves.
The $360-plus million Bloomberg has spent so far on his primary campaign is already more than any presidential candidate has ever spent on a primary campaign. It is equal to the total raised by the six remaining non-billionaire candidates for the Democratic Party nomination through the end of 2019. He could theoretically spend just 10% of his $62 billion net worth and it would come close to equaling the total cost of all federal elections held in 2016. There is zero precedent for this level of spending in any political campaign in American history.
Like the Wizard imagined in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 fairy tale, Bloomberg takes on various guises to please each targeted audience. The Wizard appeared as a giant head to Dorothy, a beautiful woman to the Scarecrow, a hideous beast to the Tin Man or a ball of fire to the Cowardly Lion. Bloomberg comes to our screens as he wants us to see him: He’s Barack Obama’s best friend; a dog lover who is, in turn, loved by dogs; or a self-deprecating Instagram meme-lord. It’s the best corporate public relations campaign money can buy. This week, he finally came under significant press scrutiny, and received a deluge of negative coverage. But it could be buried by the slew of ads he’s able to buy and endorsements he’s won from politicians who have benefited from his largesse.
“All of this money is putting up a wall in between people and learning who Bloomberg is,” Zephyr Teachout, a Fordham Law School professor and supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said.
And it could buy him the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. He has surged to third place in national polls on the back of his unprecedented advertising explosion with minimal scrutiny. His spending has already bent the Democratic National Committee to change its qualification rules for debates.
Most political scientists believe that campaign spending on presidential elections, including the primaries, has negligible effects as most high-performing campaigns raise large sums and the money has smaller and smaller returns as more is spent. But Bloomberg’s campaign is spending so much money that it could break this paradigm.
The distorting effects of Bloomberg’s campaign are already apparent. His torrent of television and online advertising has already driven up prices for ad purchases for the other campaigns. He is paying campaign staff rates that match corporate salaries, which other campaigns cannot afford and is draining the pool of political staffers from campaigns down-ballot. He is also offering staff corporate-style benefits including free laptops and three free catered meals a day. His events feature free food and alcohol for attendees. He is paying Instagram influencers to do sponsored content to help him get free media.
It is causing great consternation among the other, non-billionaire campaigns and their supporters that Bloomberg has been able to bypass public scrutiny and because the unprecedented sums he is spending are undemocratic and antithetical to the spirit of the policies endorsed by the Democratic Party.
All of this money is putting up a wall in between people and learning who Bloomberg is. Zephyr Teachout, Fordham Law School professor
“I’d be fine with him being on the debate stage because I think that instead of just putting your money out there, he’s actually got to be on the stage, and be able to go back and forth so that voters can evaluate him in that way,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on MSNBC Jan. 28.
“He could simply buy the election with hundreds of millions of dollars of ads,” Sanders said on Feb. 10. “That is wrong. That is the basic, fundamental problem of American society is that billionaires have extraordinary wealth and power over the economic and political life of this country.”
Bloomberg’s campaign represents a new threat to American democracy. If the extremely wealthy choose to spend what they truly are able to spend to obtain political office ― as Bloomberg is doing ― it will pose a significant challenge to the conduct of competitive elections.
“[We shouldn’t be] accepting the notion that the democratic experiment is over and so we need the benevolent rich guy rather than the malevolent not-as-rich-as-he-says guy,” Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project and personally a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) campaign, said. “We’re not there yet; the democratic experiment is not over yet.”
In the past, rich candidates using their own funds to finance campaigns for political office only spent a tiny fraction of their considerable wealth. But in the decade since the Great Recession, the fortunes of billionaires have exploded while the rest of the nation has stagnated. Bloomberg’s net worth has increased by $44 billion since 2010.
The plutocrats of our Second Gilded Age have since spent ever-increasing sums for their own elections. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and heir to the Hyatt fortune, set the record in 2018 by spending $171 million. His opponent, Bruce Rauner, also a billionaire, spent just $57 million of his own money.
But Bloomberg has already spent more than double what Pritzker did. Bloomberg could spend the same amount of money that Hillary Clinton spent combined with the Democratic National Committee for the entire 2016 election ― $1.4 billion ― and it would only total 1% of his net worth. And that could just be for his primary campaign.
Bloomberg has vociferously defended his self-funded campaign by arguing that he doesn’t accept campaign contributions because he doesn’t want to be bought.
“[T]hose other people expect something from them,” he said about campaign donors to his primary rivals. “Nobody gives you money if they don’t expect something.”
It is instead Bloomberg who is doing the buying. His past, present and potential future political and charitable giving is also distorting the race. He has deployed his billions over the years to gain allies, silence critics and paralyze everyone else. No one wants to anger the billionaire who could keep their campaign, nonprofit or cause afloat.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Bloomberg was the No. 1 donor to Democratic Party super PACs with $95 million in donations. Independence USA PAC, his personal super PAC, backed four members of Congress who have since endorsed his presidential campaign. He also contributed nearly $2 million to the EMILY’s List super PAC, named Women Vote!, in 2018. Bloomberg was the keynote speaker at the annual event for EMILY’s List in 2018.
As New York City mayor, Bloomberg routinely used his fortune to silence critics and buy support with charitable donations to Black churches, social service groups, cultural nonprofits and other causes. When he pushed the New York City Council to change the law so he could run for a third term, he pressured groups that had received his largesse to provide supportive testimony. They did.
Dozens of mayors across the country have endorsed Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. His philanthropy provides significant support to cities and their mayors through its American Cities Initiative. He has funded arts and cultural programs in cities across the country. The mayors of those some of those cities, including San Francisco and Washington, D.C., now back his campaign. (One recipient of his funds, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is running against him in the primary.)
“Democracy is about decentralized power and people having power to make choices about policy and the rules that govern them,” Teachout said. “Bloomberg’s campaign is about radically centralized power using money in every way possible to build a wall of power shielding him.”
Like the Wizard of Oz, Bloomberg remains behind the curtain casting his image across the land. But the “the Great and Terrible” Wizard was eventually outmatched and revealed by a democratic coalition of commoners, the “Small and Meek” Dorothy, the rural Scarecrow, the industrial Tin-Man and the secretly brave Lion.
Bloomberg is only now beginning to face scrutiny over his record and previous statements on the range of issues from Wall Street power, stop-and-frisk, transgender rights, sexism and sexual harassment and civil liberties.
The curtain is only slowly being pulled back on his long public record. If he steps on the debate stage, voters will finally be forced to pay attention to the man behind it.