A short time ago, I confidently asserted Michael Bloomberg wouldn’t actually try this. Once he looked at the polls and saw he wasn’t making a dent, he’d gracefully retreat and hope we didn’t notice he said he might run yet again.
The first week went as I figured. He sorta announced, the NYC-DC press hyperventilated, the general public yawned. Except for the Iowans surveyed by Ann Selzer, who presented data indicating Democrats there would prefer voting for weekly root canals, sans anesthetic.
He’s not backing down. Instead, he’s going on a Black Friday shopping spree, spending north of $35 million in advertising over the last several days of November, first couple days of December. The focus is big states. Places like California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York. Has he lost his mind? Is he flushing away money that could one day get bequeathed to a needy charity?
Like a startup with huge initial funding, this will probably fail. I’m going to list the reasons shortly. But this is legitimately different than every attempt before him. This is a disruptive approach, and it’s the stuff of Michael Lewis books. And I have to admit, I’m more than curious to see how well it works.
Let’s quickly review the assumptions:
He’s too late
He’s not what Democrats are looking for
Money helps, but you can’t just buy a nomination
He’s going to miss the debates
There’s plenty of evidence for each point. Since the modern nomination era began in 1972, every late entrant has failed, often miserably. Most of these catastrophes featured candidates who polled far better when they entered than Bloomberg is now.
He’s ignoring the first four states. You know how many nominees since 1972 have failed to win any of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina? Zero. If you adjust for how early most candidates start now, Bloomberg has the latest entry ever. Relatively speaking, this is more tardy than the candidates who challenged Jimmy Carter in 1976 after voting had already begun.
In a year where Democrats are competing to see who can tax the 1% as much as possible, the fifth wealthiest American is not a likely choice. Even if Bloomberg drove Pete Buttigieg’s Chevy Cruze to work each day, his policy positions don’t line up with the party consensus. He’s a pro-business internationalist who used stop and frisk as a leading policing technique.
Tom Steyer is to his left, and is barely registering nationally. Howard Schultz threw up a trial balloon for a third party run with somewhat similar ideas and couldn’t get off the ground. Sure money helps, and it bought Steyer a place on the debate stage, by funneling it to early states where he could poll just well enough to count.
But the history books are littered with candidates who were the top fundraisers, yet didn’t have delegates to show for their expense. And these people, from John Connally in 1980 to Phil Gramm in 1996 were established politicians who began early.
Unlike Steyer and Schultz, Bloomberg has actually won multiple contested elections in a place with millions of voters. But Connally and Gramm did too. By the time Bloomberg is competing in the Super Tuesday contests, somebody will have won those first four contests.
And he’s not going to qualify for debates under the current rules. Beyond the poll numbers that he doesn’t have yet, one of the rules requires having at least 200,000 individual donors. While Bloomberg could buy $1 donors the way Steyer has, he’s not trying to. At the moment, he’s not taking any donations of any kind.
Not only is he not pushing back on the idea that he’s trying to buy a nomination, he, unlike Donald Trump, doesn’t want any help. These and similar reasons are why I thought Bloomberg 2020 was the dumbest idea in recent memory.
Maybe not. If we go back to the original Moneyball example, there’s some guidance for what he’s up to. The idea is with limited resources, you can’t just do what your opponents are and expect a good outcome. Traditionally this is taken to mean someone with less money has to do something different and better.
In this case, the resource limitation is time, not money. And the money is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. This first ad buy is a record one-week spend, eclipsing what Barack Obama did in the final week before his 2012 re-election. That campaign set a record for fundraising.
Both the 2012 Obama campaign and 2016 Hillary Clinton effort spent upwards of $2 billion. That’s quite a lot. But it’s also less than 4% of Bloomberg’s net worth. It’s a bigger deal for you to call an Uber than him to spend $37 million on ads for a week. He’s likely to spend between $150-250 million on a trial balloon over the next few weeks, to see if he can get a little traction.
If he’s still at 2-3% nationally, he can call it a day, having at least given it a whirl. At this point, we’re at the equivalent of you trying a cheap Airbnb for two nights in Miami and finding it kinda dirty, with the WiFi broken.
If he’s making a little progress, say at 5 to 7 percent, with marginally better numbers in California or Texas, he goes up a level. For you, that’s a 4 to 5 day trip to an all-inclusive middle-tier resort in Cancun. For him, that’s three quarters of a billion on more ads.
By the time anyone votes in Iowa, Bloomberg would have spent more than any candidate ever has on a primary campaign. Steyer, Schultz, and Trump are wealthy guys. The top end of the top end of the 1%. Bloomberg is a modern day John D. Rockefeller. Who owns a media company.
One of the main reasons for candidates needing to begin early is momentum. You win early states, and as a winner, get tons of free media to propel you through the rest of the primary schedule. Nobody can afford to be on the air (and Facebook) at all times in places like California, Texas, and Florida with several giant media markets each. Obama couldn’t. Hillary couldn’t. Bernie couldn’t. Bloomberg can.
He does have a good record to run on. Money and 9/11 got Bloomberg elected the first time. And money definitely helped the next two times. But he has a lot of accomplishments to point to. Buttigieg is a preternaturally capable candidate, who waxes poetically about the virtues of filling potholes. Bloomberg ran New York City.
For Democrats thinking about electability over ideology, it’s possible a Bloomberg blizzard of paid media will make them envision a fall where he can even drown out Trump. And he conveniently gets to skip debates for now. Jumping in to a 10-candidate free-for-all is very hard. These guys struggle the first couple of times.
Instead of looking cowardly for ducking, he gets to play aggrieved that the party rules are stacked against him. But make no mistake, he doesn’t want to appear on stage until the herd is considerably further thinned.
This still probably isn’t going to work. If he quits or pulls back after spending the first quarter billion, I’ll even claim I was right that he was mostly just testing the waters.
As of today, the most likely scenario is he spends closer to a billion and still doesn’t win any states. But we shouldn’t compare this effort to anything we’ve seen before. And with none of the candidates in a commanding position (though Biden remains the favorite), we do need to consider this could go in a direction that’s hard to imagine right now.
Remember, Bloomberg is just buying options here. Then he can buy more. All he needs to do until he has more data is spend money. In amounts that are a rounding error for him. When a bunch of candidates 98% of Americans had never heard of began announcing they were in, it was taking an option.
For them, it was a bit of time, not much money. Usually it failed. Eric Swalwell, Seth Moulton, and friends retreated back to making sure they get renominated back to their House seats. The time cost became too much, and they ran away. But one of those absurd long shots was Pete Buttigieg.
Next election season, Bloomberg will be north of 80, and even with the current acceptance of ancient candidates, this is his last shot. So why not play?