What Bloomberg's $117 million spending spree has bought him so far
Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 49 days until the Iowa caucuses and 323 days until the 2020 election.
Before he was a Democratic candidate for president — and before he was the Republican and then independent mayor of New York City — Mike Bloomberg was the multibillionaire founder and CEO of a leading financial data and media company. He is the type of person who would be intimately familiar with the concept of ROI, or return on investment.
So what’s the ROI to date on Bloomberg’s fledgling White House bid — and what does it say about his chances of winning the Democratic nomination?
Bloomberg launched his last-minute campaign exactly three weeks ago. His appearances on the trail have been few and far between: a brief speech and meet-and-greet in Virginia; a visit to Aurora, Colo., the site of a 2012 mass shooting, to unveil a sweeping gun control agenda; events last week in San Francisco and Stockton, Calif.
His spending, however, has been abundant. Bloomberg’s first-week ad buy totaled $37 million, far more than every other campaign combined. On Dec. 10, he officially passed the $100 million mark on ad spending; as of Monday, his outlay stands at $117 million, which is more cash than the top-polling Democratic candidates have dropped on ads over the entire campaign. Advertising Analytics recently estimated that Bloomberg is spending an average of $3.7 million per day. Assuming he maintains that pace, the Manhattan mogul is on track to fork over more than $400 million by Super Tuesday on March 3 — the day the primary contest expands from the first four states, which Bloomberg is not contesting, to include much larger prizes such as California, Texas, Colorado and Virginia. (Bloomberg’s plan is to spend early and often in dozens of later states while other candidates are devoting their time and resources to Iowa and New Hampshire.)
For comparison’s sake, $400 million is more than the $325 million Donald Trump’s campaign spent in 2016 — start to finish. Bloomberg could get there in roughly 100 days.
The question, however, is what those millions will get him.
So far, Bloomberg’s money hasn’t bought him all that much. The day he entered the race (Nov. 24), he was polling at 2.6 percent in the FiveThirtyEight national average. Today, after weeks of flooding the airwaves with positive biographical spots and ads that draw sharp contrasts with Trump, he is polling at 4.4 percent. That’s good for fifth place overall, but nowhere near the 15 percent threshold he’ll need to start amassing delegates. In California — a delegate-rich state that is central to his national strategy, and where he has already spent $13.6 million — Bloomberg has reached 4.6 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average. He still trails outsider candidate Andrew Yang.
On the endorsement front, Bloomberg’s billions have helped more. Last week he secured the support of the first African-American mayor of Stockton, Calif., Michael Tubbs. According to the New York Times, Tubbs, 29, had “reason to feel kinship” with Bloomberg: he graduated last year from a mayoral training program that Bloomberg sponsors at Harvard University; he attended a conference co-sponsored by Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation in Paris in 2017; and this past June, Bloomberg’s foundation donated $500,000 to an education reform group based in Tubbs’s city. The eight other mayors who have also endorsed Bloomberg — running cities from San Jose, Calif., and Louisville, Ky., to Gary, Ind., and Columbia, S.C. — all attended his prestigious Harvard boot camp, and “more than half have received funding in the form of grants and other support packages from Mr. Bloomberg worth a total of nearly $10 million,” according to the Times. Overall, Bloomberg Philanthropies has supported 196 different cities with grants, technical assistance and education programs worth a combined $350 million.
And so the mayoral endorsements may keep coming. Bloomberg’s poll numbers may keep ticking up, one-10th of a point at a time. He may keep hiring people at a frenzied pace. But will it be enough?
Team Bloomberg says to wait and see. There’s no way to know what the field will look like after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, they argue; Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders could split those states evenly, leaving a vacuum at the top of the leader board. And no one has ever spent the kind of money Bloomberg is shelling out. New Yorkers were skeptical when he employed the same take-no-prisoners strategy there in the 2000s. Overkill, they said. He wound up winning three terms.
The problem for Bloomberg is that the ultimate impact of ad money in presidential politics is limited. Political ads can influence voters, but academic research has repeatedly shown that any effect is small and short-lived: maybe a bump of a couple of points in the polls, which tends to recede within a week. It’s possible, in fact, that no matter how much Bloomberg adds to his current $117 million tab, he won’t gain much more than the 2 percentage points he’s already picked up in the polls; as FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich has pointed out, “His ads may have reached everyone they are going to reach (and voters who saw them but still don’t support Bloomberg may be hard to pry away from their current candidate choice).” In other words, any returns on future investments may be of the diminishing variety — particularly because Biden, the frontrunner and Bloomberg’s fellow moderate, shows no sign of imploding.
Ultimately, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads can buy you attention. But it can’t buy you love. And that’s the flaw in Bloomberg’s plan. According to the latest Monmouth poll, only 26 percent of registered voters have a favorable opinion of the former New York mayor; a majority (54 percent) view him unfavorably. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s numbers among Democrats — 40 percent favorable versus 39 percent unfavorable — are by far the worst in the field. Back in March, his net favorable rating was identical: +1 percent. His spending spree hasn’t changed anything.
Unless it does, and soon, Bloomberg’s 2020 bid could wind up being one of the worst investments of an otherwise wildly successful career.