Most Democratic candidates go to great lengths to show that they’re just like you. They point out that they’re not a millionaire. They note how they dropped out of college. They claim that they have a nickname that involves the words “middle-class.”
Not Michael Bloomberg.
“If you want somebody who has the resources to beat Trump, that’s me,” Bloomberg said at a rally in Houston Thursday.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and owner of media company Bloomberg LP, is worth about $64 billion. And he’s reminding voters of his immense wealth all the time.
“You’ve all heard the slogan, ‘Mike will get it done.’ And if you haven’t, I’ve wasted an awful lot of money here,” Bloomberg joked at a recent rally in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I can’t speak for all billionaires,” Bloomberg added at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas this month. “All I know is I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away to make this country better.”
Bloomberg being a very rich guy is a central selling point of his campaign, a marked contrast not only to the other candidates but plenty of past campaigns where candidates tried very hard not to seem too rich. Even Tom Steyer, a fellow billionaire who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, preferred not to focus on his wealth. (Steyer dropped his bid on Saturday.)
A new poll from the research group NORC at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press found that the word voters overwhelmingly associate with Bloomberg is “rich.”
A new HuffPost/YouGov poll similarly found that the vast majority of voters know that Bloomberg is the wealthiest candidate in the Democratic race.
Bloomberg has spent more than $409 million of his own fortune on his presidential run. That’s an unimaginable sum. It’s more than Barack Obama spent on his entire 2008 race. And it’s more than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent, combined, on TV ads during the entire 2016 campaign. He skipped competing in the first four voting states; Super Tuesday will be the first test of his appeal.
Bloomberg is running on other issues, such as his time as mayor, his philanthropy on issues like gun violence prevention and his experience in the business world. He’s presented himself as a moderate alternative, especially for people unsure if former Vice President Joe Biden can pull it through. (Biden’s big win in South Carolina on Saturday makes that argument a bit tougher.)
But undergirding this message is that he is successful and can get things done ― and what better demonstration of success than the fact that he made billions of dollars.
His message is getting through. And for many people, it’s appealing.
“The only person who can really beat Trump without the trash talking is Bloomdale [sic] because he’s got the money,” said Al Townsend, 59, from North Charleston, S.C., who was at a rally in the city this week for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He said it was important to him that Bloomberg had more money than Trump.
Roopa Gir, a nonprofit executive who attended Bloomberg’s event in Houston this week, suggested the New Yorker’s wealth was unquestionably a benefit, noting Trump had held a fundraiser earlier this month where tickets ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Nobody in the Democratic Party can beat that,” she said. “Unfortunately, you need that to win.”
She said Bloomberg could move after his election to limit the influence of money in politics and overturn the Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations and unions the ability to spend unlimited sums of cash to support or defeat a candidate. (Unlike most of the other candidates in the 2020 field, Bloomberg is yet to release a plan on combating the influence of money in politics.)
A major concern of nominating someone who isn’t focused on cultivating grassroots donors and support is that you can end up with a nominee who is leading a parade that no one else is marching in. Patrick Burgwinkle, End Citizens United
The general election will be expensive. Trump already has $200 million in the bank for his reelection. That’s a big chunk of money in any normal political campaign universe, but it’s nothing compared to Bloomberg’s personal fortune.
Some Republicans will admit that yes, they actually are nervous about Bloomberg’s money.
“Anybody who has that much money and is willing to put it toward an effort, you’d be a fool not to be concerned about the messaging. He’s definitely a power force,” Michael McDonald, chairman of the Nevada Republican Party, recently told HuffPost.
The appeal for some Democrats isn’t just that Bloomberg can spend more than Trump to get out his message, but that it will drive the president crazy to be up against a man who is richer than he is.
“He will slap him. He will humiliate him,” said Etienne Delessert, a Connecticut voter who traveled up to New Hampshire in the run-up to the primary to check out the candidates there earlier this month. “Trump will pee in his pants.”
But there’s also something unsettling about the Democratic Party, which has made combatting the influence of money in politics a central theme, looking around for its own billionaire to run against Trump. Is politics still only for the wealthy?
“There’s no doubt that money buys you votes. And for those who have been following politics, that’s kind of a repulsive thought,” said Duane Ludwig, 47, a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in Falls Church, Va.
“I don’t think elections should be bought,” said Brigitte Racine, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Sunnyvale, Calif. “I think the money that he’s spending could go so much further if he took that same money he’s spending on ads and put it to some serious use for education, for infrastructure, for all these things that need help.”
Patrick Burgwinkle, communications director for the campaign finance reform group End Citizens United, also argues that having a nominee who doesn’t have grassroots support could be problematic for the party.
“A major concern of nominating someone who isn’t focused on cultivating grassroots donors and support is that you can end up with a nominee who is leading a parade that no one else is marching in,” he said. “Even if you set aside that concern, we fundamentally believe that billionaires shouldn’t be able to spend unlimited money in our elections whether it’s through super PACs or dropping over $500 million in two months on their own campaign.”
The poll by HuffPost/YouGov found that Democrats remain broadly supportive of reducing inequality and generally skeptical of the rich, although a plurality say it doesn’t matter to them whether or not a candidate is wealthy.
Bloomberg has promised that that money will be there, even if he’s not the nominee. He said he’s committed to keeping on his staff and staying active in the election to support whoever the Democratic Party picks.
Sanders’ campaign, however, recently said that it would not accept Bloomberg’s money if the Vermont senator becomes the Democratic nominee, and Bloomberg in turn said he therefore may not help out in that case.
Ariel Edwards-Levy conducted the polling for this piece. Tara Golshan reported from South Carolina, Mollie Reilly from California and Kevin Robillard from Texas.