The best campaign money can buy

wikimedia/Creative Commons

Related Posts

Right past the dirt-specked doors of the Institute of Governmental Studies, or IGS, housed in gray and weathered Moses Hall, is a Super Tuesday 2020 watch party, co-hosted by IGS and the Undergraduate Political Science Association. It is about 5 in the evening, and the first of the 14 state primaries — worth a whopping 1,338 delegates toward the Democratic presidential nomination — have been reporting results for an hour now.

The party, if it can be called that, is mostly bare: old crimson foldable chairs (unoccupied), a blue and red decorated table with little American flags strung over the front, along with the usual party treats, from carrots with ranch to dust-caked chips to half liters of Pepsi and Mountain Dew. Woodcuts of notable male Democratic and Republican politicians over the last 50 years, from Bush 41 to Reagan, to Rand Paul and Obama hang along the walls. 

Up at the front, a feed of CNN’s primary coverage plays on a dirty projector screen. It is going to be a long night, for those following the election and the politicians themselves, especially billionaire and former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who has bet the success of his entire campaign on this one day.

Bloomberg, as a man of non-intrigue

Everything that is known about Michael Rubens Bloomberg — the man, the entrepreneur, the politician — is not difficult to find. Nor are any of his focal points of interest, propagated by his campaign, his opponents or the media, relatively shocking or even front-page newsworthy.

How he self-made his multimedia, software and financial empire, which has his net worth evaluated at more than $50 billion, the contested points of his controversial mayoral tenure, his crusade against gun violence and climate change, his public feud with President Trump, whom he ridiculed as a “carnival barking clown” and who has, in turn, displayed an aggressive amount of heightism, labeling Bloomberg, like an Austin Powers villain, “Mini Mike” — all of this is just a Google search away.

Bloomberg’s story itself, which can be seen as the idealized American dream, is readily available on his campaign site. This story is retold in the many Bloomberg 2020 television, radio and internet advertisements that have dominated ad-buys ever since he entered the presidential race months after the rest of the field.

What’s so interesting is his belief that out-spending his rivals and constantly advertising to the American public will deliver him the nomination, without special interests.

Political pundits and experts are fascinated by Bloomberg’s remarkable campaigning strategy. What’s so interesting is his belief that out-spending his rivals and constantly advertising to the American public will deliver him the nomination, without special interests. As much as he is attacked by his opponents for this spending, one thing they cannot deny is that every cent spent is his own.

The best campaign that money could buy

Mike Bloomberg is driven by statistics. They form the foundation of his empire and inform how he approaches problems. If you’ve watched Bloomberg debate before, you’d know that he repeatedly incorporates statistics, often with alarming accuracy, in his responses. This dedication to statistics has come to define not only his career in politics, but also business.

As an executive, 20,000-plus employees have built careers working for him and his companies, which themselves are focused on financial markets, analytics and ratings.

As the former mayor of New York City, millions of people from minority groups have in one way or another felt the effects of his fixation on lowering one statistic in particular: crime rates.

Yet the lives he speaks about through statistics are more than numbers. They are as rich in complexity and diversity, experiences and worldviews, as Bloomberg is in wealth. The continuing criticisms of his stop-and-frisk policy, especially the testimonies of the people who lived under it, prevented him from gaining the trust of a demographic he desperately needed to win over: the Black vote.

Super Tuesday, cont.

Joe Biden, whose failure Bloomberg is betting on to push the moderate factions in his favor, has just been declared the victor of North Carolina and Virginia. On CNN, a representative from the Sanders campaign base tries to quell fears of a Biden insurgency.

Jake Tapper congratulates Bloomberg for getting his first delegates ever from American Samoa, but without a qualification of anxiety: that the Bloomberg campaign should be worried about its first election night being its last.

Greasy pizza has just been delivered, and the “partygoers,” both young and old, some decorated with “I Voted” stickers, line up to grab a slice.

One of the students says, “Oh my god, I’ve seen him on TV before. That’s Joe Vazquez.” Indeed, there is a CBS-San Francisco news crew, blinding-camera-on-the-shoulder-man included and all, with reporter Vazquez, who is telling the viewers at home that he will be covering election night from UC Berkeley, where the youth vote hopes to spur forward the Bernie Sanders revolution.

Meanwhile, the anchors on CNN say that Biden might be carried to winning the entire South by sizable Black populations, which former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe says is the “heart and soul” of the Democratic Party.

There is no talk of Bloomberg for a while.

The numbers behind the Bloomberg campaign

If statistics can appropriately be described as staggering, those belonging to Bloomberg’s campaign spending are breathtaking.

$410 million. That’s how much Bloomberg had spent on television advertisements alone through Super Tuesday, which is already more than what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent on television advertisements during their entire 2016 campaigns combined, reported ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

And in the 14 coveted Super Tuesday states? He spent $170 million in advertising to saturate his face, name and message into their voter’s minds. In contrast, his main rivals (except for the record-breakingly grassroots-funded Bernie Sanders) spent all of their war vaults in the early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

If statistics can appropriately be described as staggering, those belonging to Bloomberg’s campaign spending are breathtaking.

Joe Biden only spent $1.5 million in eight Super Tuesday states. Tom Steyer, another self-funded billionaire, spent $42 million on Super Tuesday states before dropping out three days before Super Tuesday. Elizabeth Warren, who passionately disavowed super PAC contributions to her campaign since its beginning, made an about-face and has failed to tell Persist PAC to stop spending millions in ad-buys supporting her candidacy.

With billions to spend, Bloomberg launched an impressive campaign apparatus upon entering the presidential race, hiring 2,400 workers, who are distributed across over 125 offices in more than 30 states in the country, and who are so well-paid (entry-level position annual salary: $72,000) and well-fed (they’ve reportedly spent $10,000 on sushi alone) that local campaigns are suffering from a lack of staff.

Besides the massive internet and television advertising, Bloomberg has extended his reach into the realm of social media, paying meme pages and influencers (the latter, reportedly $2,500 a month) to post sponsored Bloomberg-featured content.

Advertising, from Mike to you

Q.: Why, exactly, would a politician spend an inordinate amount of money on advertising?

A.: Mike Bloomberg, as put on display in town halls and national debate stages, is cold fish. Throughout the campaign, he seemed, at times, to be annoyed when under attack or forced to answer a question that was apparently beneath him. The game of politics — ad hominem attacks, zingers, selling yourself not just as a promise, but as someone people can relate to— makes Bloomberg’s pursuit of power immiscible with his subdued, distant aura.

So for a candidate who has been criticized for lacking the ability to connect with average, nonbillionaire Americans, Bloomberg has tried to make up for what he lacks in charm by entering the everyday lives of those Americans, everywhere.

But to get a good, accurate sense of whether or not Bloomberg’s advertising scheme worked as he intended it to, to understand how the American people felt being inundated with his name, face and message every day, is a complex, just about impossible task within the writing schedule of this piece. Interviewing students at political events would be an option, but it would be unhelpful in the end: those who are there at volunteering events or watch parties are already politically inclined, effectively biased subjects. I needed access to what Louis Menand called the “unpolitical animal,” the everyday Americans who don’t pay much attention to politics and could perhaps be swayed by constant advertising — or exactly the demographic Bloomberg was selling himself to.

But what I can tell you is the impression Bloomberg’s tactic made on this Gen. Z voter:

He seemed to be everywhere. His adverts, narrated by a confident female voice that declared, “Mike will get it done,” and finished off with the endorsement of his own soft, distinct New York-voice, weren’t just on TV, but on YouTube. It’s normal for web-engine searches to inform your tailored-advertisements. But if you searched for Mike Bloomberg on Google, what was remarkable was the speed and distribution of his advertisements; the very next site you visited would have Bloomberg’s face on a side banner or a 30-second advert.

There are 49 60-second Bloomberg ads, and in the lead up to Super Tuesday, at any given time of the day, they could be seen on just about any channel you flipped to on television, be it the morning news, the evening game show or a late-night basketball game.

But if you searched for Mike Bloomberg on Google, what was remarkable was the speed and distribution of his advertisements; the very next site you visited would have Bloomberg’s face on a side banner or a 30-second advert.

To escape Mike Bloomberg was to unplug from the internet. Among fellow students, it seemed like he wasn’t changing anyone’s minds, only irritating them. And Bloomberg spent nearly half a billion dollars to convince you otherwise.

Bloomberg’s ROI

Up on the projector screen, David Axelrod is speaking the hard truth about Bloomberg: “Mike Bloomberg made a bet — that Joe Biden would self-destruct by Super Tuesday. … He lost that bet. He’s not getting a very good return on his investment.”

CNN mentions that Bloomberg spent $18 million in Virginia while Biden only spent a couple hundred thousand. It is described as “hugely disappointing” for him. It’s only been two hours since polls first closed. A CNN reporter asks Bloomberg campaign representatives if there is any chance of him dropping out tonight. The response is firm and incredulous: “Are you kidding me? Absolutely not.”

The Bloomberg campaign is convinced that one of the moderates, either Bloomberg or Biden, will eventually be the nominee. But most of the CNN talk is about a two-horse race between Sanders, who Tapper says is “overwhelmingly” supported by young people, and Biden, who is “overwhelmingly” supported by older voters. The party itself reflects the battle between these demographics, filled more with older voters than younger ones.

People flitter in and out, eating pizza before quickly leaving. The night is dragging along, with most of the polling results slowly eeking out. California hasn’t even closed its voting stations yet.

Half past six, John King says that Bloomberg is “viable” in several states, but that third place is still “disappointing.” Tapper, meanwhile, says he has no idea what is going to happen. He anticipates a “protracted nomination.” It is unseen whether Bloomberg will make it all the way to the convention. As former candidate Andrew Yang says, Bloomberg will have an “entire position” by Wednesday morning, when results are just about final in most states, providing him with a footing on which to decide whether or not to continue his campaign.

In West Palm Beach, Bloomberg tells his rally crowd that, “No matter how many delegates we win tonight, we have done something no one else thought was possible. In just three months, we’ve gone from 1% in the polls to being a contender for the Democratic nomination for president.”

He almost seems like he’s forcing this personality upon himself, at times acknowledging the crowd behind him, delivering the usual political rhetoric with pleasure at how well he’s playing the role of national candidate. With the crowd cheering at every appropriate moment, it feels like Bloomberg is channelling his best Jared, the rich kid from “Booksmart” who continually fails to make genuine friends in his flawed approach to friendship: buying their affection.

Past midnight, it is clear that Bloomberg is slated to get delegates from several states. But it doesn’t matter. The storyline of Super Tuesday is that Joe Biden, combativeness, questionable mental fitness and Declaration of Independence misquotes and all — “you know, you know the thing” — staged an incredible political comeback, riding his dominant South Carolina victory out of the depths of faultiness into winning 10 out of the 14 Super Tuesday contests, effectively launching himself into a two-elderly-man race walk to the Democratic nomination.

The end of the line

Despite just hours before asserting that he was going to defeat Donald Trump come November, by the early morning after Super Tuesday, as Americans woke up and went to work, Bloomberg announced, via statement, that he was quitting the race and endorsing Biden.

For someone who paid $11 million for every delegate he won, he remained more than 500 delegates behind the new front-runner. Bloomberg, although proud and ambitious, also possesses the acumen to know when to pull out of a bad investment.

For someone who paid $11 million for every delegate he won, he remained more than 500 delegates behind the new front-runner.

He failed spectacularly in Virginia, receiving zero delegates in a state where he carefully developed connections and campaigned earlier than his opponents, and the delegate-heavy prizes of Texas and California, where he did receive delegates, but not nearly as many as he had hoped to with his mediocre third-place finishes.

Perhaps what makes Bloomberg such an effective businessman are the very things that turned him off to the national electorate — a reverence of data, a cold, managerial style that brought results, but which came with none of the pathos or candidness people have come to expect from their political leaders.

It also didn’t help that he appeared to hold the audacious belief that he could simply buy his way to the top of the polls, and more brazenly, into people’s hearts and minds.

His outspend, out-advertise strategy may have worked in metropolitan New York, but it was soundly rejected by the voters of the Sun Belt, where the legacy of stop-and-frisk doomed his relationship with the large minority voting blocs there.

If Bloomberg believed he could convince the un-political animals through omnipresence, harassing them into declaring that he was their man, then the late, sudden and sweeping support for Biden both proved that the political decisions of the typical American can be easily won over and also disproved how Bloomberg thought this could be achieved.

Love is not bought. At least not the meaningful kind, anyway.

Contact Alex Dang at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexdaaang.