How Bloomberg plans to buy the Democratic nomination

Can money buy a presidential nomination? We’re about to find out.

After years of unconsummated flirtations and weeks of high-profile preparations, multibillionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg finally announced Sunday that he will be running for president in 2020, touting himself as a “new choice for Democrats” who is uniquely positioned to “[defeat] Donald Trump and [rebuild] America” by dint of his crossover appeal “as a doer and a problem solver.”

“With the right candidate we can turn areas from red to blue, and we need to do that all across this country,” Bloomberg said Monday at his first campaign stop in Norfolk, Va. “The stakes could not be higher. We must win this election.”

In the immediate aftermath of Bloomberg’s announcement, pundits ticked off all the ways in which the New Yorker is an almost comically bad fit for a contemporary Democratic Party that he aspires to save from itself, and perhaps even for the broader electorate he hopes to save from Trump.

He is a plutocrat at a time of rising populism. He is a Wall Street billionaire at a time when nothing fires up Democrats like bashing Wall Street billionaires. He is a poster boy of big-city, East Coast, nanny-state elitism at a time when a certain degree of small-town, Rust Belt sway seems to be the key to winning the Electoral College. He is a fiscal conservative at a time when neither party’s voters appear to care about debt and deficits. He is a 77-year-old white man at a time when the president and three of his leading Democratic rivals are all white septuagenarians. He is a longtime proponent of discriminatory stop-and-frisk policing — a position he conveniently disowned last week — at a time when Democrats are desperate for a candidate who can inspire black voters to turn out next November. And he has a long history of crude remarks about women — aka, a majority of Democratic primary voters — at a time when progressives have zero tolerance for such behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Observers have also pointed out that no mayor, and certainly no New York mayor, has ever gone directly to the White House, and that Bloomberg’s purported strategy of skipping the early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire to focus on winning the delegate-rich Super Tuesday states has failed miserably every other time it was tried. In 2008, it failed for Rudy Giuliani, another former New York mayor who was banking on a win in Florida but saw his huge polling lead there evaporate after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. In 1988, it failed for then-Sen. Al Gore, who ignored Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of Super Tuesday primaries across his home region, the South, but never gained enough momentum from those late victories to seriously contest the nomination. Meanwhile, since the start of the modern primary system in 1976, no eventual nominee has launched a campaign any later than August of the year before the election. It’s now almost December.

Michael Bloomberg through the years
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Michael Bloomberg through the years
344913 02: Bloomberg L.P. founder and CEO Michael Bloomberg poses for a portrait November 2, 1998 in the training room at his offices in New York City. (Photo by Chris Casaburi/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg samples a slice of life at Francesco's Pizzeria on Third Ave. in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg talks to passersby while campaigning at Broadway and W. 225th St. (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2001: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg exchanges high-fives with 7-year-old Matthew DePoalo while campaigning on Ditmars Blvd. in Astoria. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
388464 18: Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News Service hosts a party before attending the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, April 28, 2001 in Washington DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Newsmakers)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Michael Bloomberg, Republican candidate for New York mayor, speaks to the press in Brooklyn, New York, 26 September 2001. Bloomberg handsomely won the 25 September New York mayoral primary election to be the official Republican party candidate to replace New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on January 1 next year, according to exit polls. AFP PHOTO Doug KANTER (Photo credit should read DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 26: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg meets with the Daily News editorial board. (Photo by Pat Carroll/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg leaves the polling booth at PS 6 in Manhattan, NY. (Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/WireImage)
399131 02: Michael Bloomberg, the108th Mayor of the City of New York, gives his inaugural address January 1, 2002 at City Hall in New York City. (Photo by Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: Mayor Michael Bloomberg chats with diners at the International House of Pancakes at 135th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in Harlem, where he picked up the endorsement of the Rev. Calvin Butts. (Photo by Craig Warga/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C), and former New York Stock Exchange President William Johnston (R) listens to New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso (R) on the bell podium before Bloomberg rang the opening bell to begin trading 02 January, 2002. AFP PHOTO Henny Ray ABRAMS (Photo credit should read HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
399944 03: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the swearing in of over 300 probationary firefighters January 22, 2002 at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island in New York City. The new class is the second to enter the academy since the World Trade Center attack, when the department lost 343 firefighters. The probationary firefighters will begin physical training and classroom instruction before being sent out to firehouses around the city., (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 30: Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes his first State of the City address in the City Council chamber at City Hall. (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Mayor Michael Bloomberg cuts the ribbon to begin the opening of fall's Fashion Week in Bryant Park in Manhattan, NY. (Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 09: Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands amidst fire officials during funeral of Fire Lt. Kevin Pfeifer at St. Margaret's Church in Middle Village, Queens. Pfeifer, 42, who worked with Engine Co. 33 in lower Manhattan, was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Bloomberg, attending his first firefighter funeral since taking office last month, eulogized the fallen hero and praised the bravery of all the firefighters who responded to the attacks. (Photo by Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
401921 01: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the unveiling of a fifty-foot high stainless steel tree by artist Roxy Paine March 5, 2002 in New York City's Central Park. The tree is one of five public artworks on display in Central Park sponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg(L) and Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) look at memorial banners and posters in front of St. Paul's Chapel 09 April 2002 in New York City, before visiting ground zero at the site of the World Trade Center attacks. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Kathy WILLENS (Photo credit should read KATHY WILLENS/AFP/Getty Images)
403191 02: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta (R) look on as a U.S. flag that once flew over Ground Zero is raised during a ceremony at City Hall Plaza April 1, 2002 in New York City. The flag was immortalized in a photograph by Thomas Franklin of three firefighters raising it amid the rubble of the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 28: Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the Republican State Convention at the Sheraton New York Hotel on Seventh Ave. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 14: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts Dominic Gorie (L) and Frank Culbertson (R) present an American flag to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) in honor of Flag Day June 14, 2002 in New York City. The flag was found at Ground Zero, the location of the World Trade Center in New York, and was flown into space in December 2001 aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavor. Culbertson was onboard the International Space Station September 11, 2001 when the terrorist attacks occurred in the U.S. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JULY 4: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets a Nathan's Famous hot dog after Takeru Kobayashi won Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island July 4, 2002 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Kobayashi, who won last year, set a new world record by eating 50 1/2 hot dogs in twelve minutes. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 10: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2nd R) speaks with an aide while announcing a new emergency notification system at a news conference overlooking Ground Zero on May 10, 2011 in New York City. Bloomberg, who was joined by politicians, federal officials and the heads of mobile phone companies, spoke of the system that will alert what to do in case of emergency to anyone with an 'enabled' mobile device within range of a cell phone tower. Part of a law passed by Congress five years ago, the service is scheduled to be available in New York City and Washington, D.C. by the end of the year and is expected in the rest of the country by mid-2012. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) speaks at a press conference as construction continues at the World Trade Center site on September 7, 2011 in New York City. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum will feature two reflecting pools on the footprints of the twin towers. The memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 02: (L-R) Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel participate in a forum about education in big cities at the Katzen Arts Center on the campus of American University March 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Calling their municipalities 'city-states,' the mayors suppored the idea of individual school districts being able to compete with states for the $4.35 billion 'Race to the Top' grant program created by President Barack Obama. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) rings the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on the first day of opening since Hurricane Sandy October 31, 2012 in New York City. The storm has claimed several dozen lives in the United States and has caused massive flooding across much of the Atlantic seaboard. U.S. President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the U.S. east coast, including New York City, with widespread power outages and significant flooding in parts of lower Manhattan and elsewhere. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds a large cup as he speaks to the media about the health impacts of sugar at Lucky's restaurant, which voluntarily adopted the large sugary drink ban, March 12, 2013 in New York City. A state judge on Monday blocked Bloomberg's ban on oversized sugary drinks but the Mayor plans to appeal the decision. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 06: New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio speaks with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg at City Hall on November 6, 2013 in New York City. It was the first meeting between the two since de Blasio's election victory the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 19: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a press conference with United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan (not seen), unveiling a Hurricane Sandy Recovery Report on August 19, 2013 in the Greenpoint neighborhood of the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. The report calls for strengthening the region's electrical grid, reinforcing coastline and protecting gas supplies. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Yet neither Gore nor Giuliani nor any of those previous eleventh-hour candidates had what Bloomberg has in endless abundance: money. They might have been better fits for their respective parties at the moments they chose to run. They might have been more charismatic on the trail, or more skilled on the stump. But not one of them was the eighth-richest person in America, with a net worth of $53.4 billion.

That means Bloomberg’s candidacy will be the clearest test in American history of how much of a difference cold, hard cash can make — of how many obvious political obstacles it alone can overcome.

Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals are already attacking him for leveraging his vast personal fortune to upend the primary. “I understand rich people are going to have more shoes of the rest of us,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Monday in New Hampshire. “They’re going to have more cars than the rest of us. They’re going to have more houses. But they don’t get a bigger share of democracy. Especially in a Democratic primary.”

Yet what’s really striking is that Bloomberg and his team haven’t been shying away from the whole buying-the-election argument. “Mike is prepared to spend what it takes to defeat Donald Trump,” top adviser Howard Wolfson has said. So far, that means a $100 million digital ad campaign designed to attack and define Trump in the four battleground states most likely to decide the election (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin); a $15 million to $20 million voter registration drive targeting 500,000 Americans from underrepresented, Democratic-leaning groups; and a record-breaking $37 million television ad buy that will put 60-second biographical commercials on the air for a full week in more than two dozen states and roughly 100 media markets from California to Maine.

To put that in perspective, $37 million is more than all of Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals (other than his fellow billionaire Tom Steyer) have spent on TV ads this year, and about double what Sen. Cory Booker had raised in donations from February through the end of September. Bloomberg’s total initial investment of $150 million, meanwhile, is more than twice what the field’s leading fundraiser, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has raked in over the entire 2020 cycle. And when he was first considering a bid earlier this year, Bloomberg reportedly planned to spend at least $500 million on the primary alone — roughly $175 million more than the Trump campaign spent in 2016. 

Those are staggering sums. The question now is what exactly Bloomberg’s ROI (return on investment) will be. Though his people say Democrats secretly crave a moderate contender who is more polished than Joe Biden and more prepared than Pete Buttigieg, Bloomberg’s poll numbers are abysmal. He is currently averaging 2.3 percent nationally, which puts him behind Andrew Yang, and 1 percent in Iowa, which puts him behind Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. Even worse, the most recent CNN/Des Moines Register survey found that 58 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers viewed Bloomberg unfavorably, compared with only 19 percent who held a favorable view. No one else in the field was seen nearly as negatively.

Yes, Bloomberg plans to bypass Iowa. But because he isn’t accepting donations (except in the form of merchandise purchases), he will also likely bypass the Democratic debates. (To qualify, all candidates must now attract at least 200,000 individual donors.) That means he will essentially be running his own separate national campaign apart from the Democratic primary contest and consisting almost entirely of hundreds of millions of dollars of paid airtime and digital advertisements.

“We’re not going to talk to people in one state, and then a second state and then a third state,” Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg’s campaign manager, explained Monday on CNN. “We’re going to talk to everyone in the country at once. And we’re particularly going to talk to those people who need to vote in those swing states [and] ultimately vote against Donald Trump. And so when we launched a campaign yesterday, we didn’t launch it in four states which have 4 percent of the available delegates as part of that process — we launched it in 16 states which have 40 percent of the available delegates.

“You can say it’s never been done before,” Sheekey continued. “But you also have to say no one’s tried it before.”

Sheekey’s right: No one has ever tried it before — because no one has ever had Bloomberg’s billions. It’s far too early to say how the mogul’s novel strategy will play out. It could flop. It could sow chaos, cutting into Biden’s and Buttigieg’s support, further splitting the primary vote and resulting in a contested convention. Or (less likely, but still possible) it could work and propel Bloomberg to the nomination. If it does, it will not be a testament to Bloomberg’s experience in business, government and philanthropy, or to his talent as a politician. It will be a testament to his money. 

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