With a net worth of $54.1 billion, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is the richest man ever to run for president of the United States. He plans to act like it.
In his first week as a candidate, Bloomberg launched a $40-plus million advertising campaign that puts him on pace to break the record for the most personal wealth spent on a presidential campaign in modern history — by week two.
President Donald Trump, also a billionaire, spent $66 million of his own money in the 2016 election. For now, Trump’s total stands as the most anyone has spent of their own money on a presidential campaign, not adjusted for inflation, since modern campaign finance laws went into effect in the 1970s.
The election of America’s first billionaire president came in the midst of a golden age for super-rich political candidates. Billionaires and centi-millionaires increasingly ran for and won political office in the years after the Great Recession immiserated millions of non-rich Americans and made the rich richer.
Bloomberg helped lead the way. In 2009, Bloomberg, then the second-richest man in New York City, became the first politician to spend more than $100 million of their own money on a political campaign. He pumped $102 million into his third mayoral bid in the depths of the Great Recession. He barely won. Across three successful mayoral bids, Bloomberg spent a quarter of a billion dollars.
He is now one of three billionaires running for president, joining Trump and hedge fund investor and Democratic Party donor Tom Steyer. Like Bloomberg, Steyer is on pace to shatter records for self-funding presidential candidates.
The proliferation of billionaire and super-rich political candidates is partially a function of the collapse of the campaign finance legal regime enacted after Watergate. As political parties seek candidates with deep pockets, rising wealth inequality is leaving the super-rich with even more excess wealth, and much of American political culture continues to assume that, due to their success, billionaires are uniquely qualified to solve complicated domestic and international problems.
Campaign Finance Collapse
Once upon a time, from 1976 to 2008, presidential candidates ran for office with public funds. The presidential public financing system was enacted to reduce corruption and the appearance of corruption in the wake of a series of campaign finance scandals connected to President Richard Nixon’s Watergate plot. Every president until Barack Obama won office using public funds in the general election.
But the public funding system began to crumble earlier, thanks to the ambitions of the extremely rich. Former Texas Gov. John Connally was the first candidate to refuse public funds, which he did in the 1980 Republican Party primary. He spent $500,000 of his own money.
Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire tech investor, spent far more when he ran a third party campaign for president in 1992. Perot did not take public funds, instead spending $60 million of his own fortune, which included a $40 million blitz in the last month of the campaign. He won no electoral votes, but finished with 19% of the vote ― the best third party performance since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.
Although not inspired by Perot, Steve Forbes, the wealthy publisher of pro-wealth news, ran for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1996, similarly citing his status as a non-political outsider funding his own campaign. It was Forbes’ decision not to accept public funds for the primary campaign that marked the beginning of the end of the presidential public financing system.
When Forbes self-funded a second run in 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush also chose not to use public funds for the primary. In 2004, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry both opted out of public funds in the Democratic Party presidential primary.
By 2008, no one took public funds in either party primary. And after Obama won the Democratic nomination, he became the first general election candidate in the 30-year history of public financing to decline the funds, a decision that effectively killed the system. The super-wealthy would no longer be burdened by any norm of taking public funds going forward.
A Cultural Shift Towards Plutocracy
Although the collapse of the presidential public funding system enticed more super-rich people to run for president, it doesn’t explain why the rich have increasingly won top offices at the state level in the decade since the global financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession.
During this past decade, billionaires and centi-millionaires won governorships in Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has a fortune worth hundreds of millions, spent more than $100 million of his own money to win two terms as Florida governor from 2011 to 2019, then spent $63 million to win a Senate election in 2018. Coal billionaire Gov. Jim Justice, the richest man in West Virginia, spent $4 million of his own money to win office in 2016. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burghum (R), an ex-Microsoft executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars, self-funded his 2016 campaign, although state law didn’t require him to disclose how much he gave to himself.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) spent $171 million of his $3.4 billion fortune in 2018 to set the record for most personal money spent on election for any office. He beat incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner, who is himself worth nearly $1 billion and spent $57 million of his own money in that same election.
Many of these candidates relied on the same themes as Perot, Forbes, Trump and even Bloomberg: They’re political outsiders uncorrupted by campaign contributions and freed from the entanglements of party.
The U.S. had wealthy politicians in the past ― George Washington, Nelson Rockefeller, Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, William Andrews Clark, Henry Ford and so on. But there is something different about the way that voters appear drawn to the super-wealthy now.
Not every recent super-rich candidate has been victorious, though. Meg Whitman, the former Hewlett Packard CEO, famously flamed out while spending what was then a record $144 million of her own money as the Republican candidate for California governor in 2010. World Wrestling Entertainment executive Linda McMahon lost twice running as a Republican for Senate in Connecticut in 2010 and 2012, campaigns in which she spent a combined $108 million.
Many other rich people have discussed potential presidential campaigns, including Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg, Disney CEO Bob Iger and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. And, of course, there was the brief media craze over Starbucks owner Howard Schultz’s potential “centrist-independent” third party bid.
After a massive backlash, Schultz ultimately decided not to run — though he did at least leave us with his politically correct terminology for the rich: “persons of means.”
Perhaps Bloomberg’s greatest asset is calamity. A collapse of faith in elite institutions, including established political parties and their leaders, accelerated after the global financial crisis in the U.S. and across the European Union. Voters in these countries have turned to left wing populists, far-right populists and one particular far-right billionaire populist. Now, do they really want a billionaire who represents the very global financial system that shattered the neoliberal economic consensus across the globe? Bloomberg is betting a considerable amount that the answer is “yes.”