In A Month, Michael Bloomberg Has Spent More Than $100 Million On Campaign Ads

Dec 27, 2019
Originally published on December 27, 2019 12:48 pm

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, entered the Democratic presidential primary a month ago. He's already spent more than $100 million on advertising.

Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, another billionaire in the Democratic contest, have in total spent about $200 million so far, according to Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks campaign ad expenditures.

That's historic levels of spending. Advertising Analytics says the two candidates' combined tally so far is about a quarter of all the money that was spent in the 2016 presidential cycle — primaries and general election together.

The next-biggest spender among Democrats is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and he's paid just $20 million for ads so far.

Bloomberg's strategy

Bloomberg's strategy is unique — and especially notable in a Democratic primary in which big money and billionaires have often been vilified.

As a late entrant in the race, Bloomberg is bypassing campaigning in the first four primary states and is instead focused on marshaling his money into advertising. In recent weeks he's been blanketing the airwaves, introducing himself to voters in essentially every TV market in the country.

"Given the amount of money that he has spent, he's increasing in name recognition. You see that by the poll numbers," says Democratic strategist Karen Finney.

Indeed, Bloomberg has seen a slight increase in his poll numbers. He's now averaging around 5% nationally. That's higher than many Democrats who entered this race long before he did — though he's still well behind the leading candidates.

To become New York City's mayor, Bloomberg proved he can finance his own election and win. But Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says it's not easy, especially in a Democratic primary.

"Self-funders can win elections, but it's always challenging for them," she says. "And there's the perception that you're trying to buy the election, which is quite problematic for some voters. I mean, it's less about someone being a billionaire and more about the idea that they're trying to sort of buy it."

Greenberg isn't discounting the importance of money. In fact, she says when she's worked in primaries in which nobody really knows any of the candidates, the person who spent the most money has won.

But this Democratic presidential primary is different. People are already plugged into the race.

"You have a lot of candidates that are well-known, you have a lot of very engaged voters following the primary," Greenberg says. "Somebody coming in with money can't really — it's not a blank slate. People already have ideas of who they support, and so it's just much harder for that money to have influence."

A network of mayors

Bloomberg's money strategy is not just about advertising; it's also about hiring, especially in the states that will vote right after the first four (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina).

"The recent announcement that he's added 200 staffers on the ground in a number of the March [3] Super Tuesday states, it changes the calculation a little bit for the candidates who are currently in," Finney says.

Bloomberg's strategy is based on the assumption that Democratic voters are anxious about their options. His campaign thinks he has a path if no candidate emerges as the clear favorite after the first few states vote.

"You don't need to have early primary states," says Steve Williams, mayor of Huntington, W.Va. "He's got a network all across the country. What he has done, nobody, nobody has been able to match."

That network Williams is referring to, it's mayors — mayors who trust Bloomberg and feel indebted to him because they've received millions of dollars in grants to build art centers or fight climate change. After Bloomberg left office, he leveraged his personal fortune into helping other cities.

Earlier this month, Williams endorsed Bloomberg, whose foundation gave the city of Huntington assistance related to the opioid epidemic.

"Somebody helps you, you help them," Williams says, "and it's amazing how our city has benefited from Mayor Bloomberg's support."

Mayors who support Bloomberg say it's not just about the money; it's also about witnessing his expertise and judgment firsthand.

An early focus on battleground states

Bloomberg is essentially running a general election campaign in the primaries.

Earlier this week he launched a digital ad depicting Democratic voters in battleground states such as Michigan, warning that President Trump could win reelection.

"We're going to places where Democrats for the most part are not going right now, where we have to win in order to win the White House in 2020," says Michael Nutter, a former Philadelphia mayor who's now Bloomberg's national political chair

Nutter points to his home state.

"Pennsylvania doesn't vote until April," he says. "But there's an office now open in Philadelphia and there will be others in Pennsylvania way before [the primary]."

Bloomberg is trying to address the central question many Democratic voters have: Who can beat Trump?

Campaigning in battleground states is a key part of that plan, but so is money. Bloomberg's theory is that Trump has buckets of money to spend, and Democrats need to be able to compete with that.

The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee raised $300 million from January through September — and that's before Trump's impeachment, which energized Republican voters in opposition and will no doubt make the year-end tally substantially higher.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Money is pouring into the 2020 presidential election. Now, that would likely be the case anyway, but it's especially true this time because there are two billionaires in the Democratic primary who can fund their own campaigns. One of them is New York City's former mayor Michael Bloomberg. He's spending his money not on campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire but on ads. And it is a lot of money. He's spent more than $100 million already. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid has been looking into this strategy. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.

KING: So Mike Bloomberg and the environmental activist Tom Steyer are the two self-funded candidates. They are both billionaires. How do they compare to the other Democrats running?

KHALID: Well, first, let me just explain how much they are spending. Collectively, Steyer and Bloomberg have spent about $200 million so far. That's according to Advertising Analytics, a firm that's been tracking campaign ad spending. And really, Noel, that is historic levels of spending.

For some context, the firm says it's about a quarter of all the money that was spent in the 2016 cycle, primaries and general election together. The next biggest spender, though, among the Democrats currently is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind. And he's only really spent a fraction of what Steyer and Bloomberg have. He is just at around $20 million on ads.

KING: OK. So much, much less. One of the really fascinating things here is that Bloomberg has only been a candidate in this primary for about 30 days, and yet he's already spent this massive sum of money. Is that basically Mike Bloomberg's strategy - spend, spend, spend?

KHALID: Well, I mean, sort of. I mean, he's decided to bypass the first four early voting states. And that in itself is a pretty unusual strategy. The main reason that Michael Bloomberg can do this is because he's one of the richest men in America. You know, he is worth more than $50 billion. And lately, he has been blanketing the airwaves, introducing himself to voters in essentially every single TV market in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Jobs creator, leader, problem solver. Mike Bloomberg for president.

MIKE BLOOMBERG: I'm Mike Bloomberg, and I approve this message.

KHALID: And, Noel, I wanted to understand more about how this strategy is supposed to work, and I'm going to spend a few minutes telling you about that. One person I talked to is Democratic strategist Karen Finney.

KAREN FINNEY: Given the amount of money that he has spent, he's increasing in name recognition, to - by the poll numbers.

KHALID: And Finney is right. As Bloomberg has spent money, you've seen a slow, steady increase in his poll numbers. He's now averaging around 5% nationally, and that's higher than many Democrats who entered this race long before him. Bloomberg has proved that he can finance his own election and win. He did that as mayor of New York City. But Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says it's not easy, especially in a Democratic primary.

ANNA GREENBERG: Self-funders can win elections, but it's always challenging for them. And there's a kind of perception that you're trying to buy the election, which is quite problematic for some voters. I mean, it's less about someone being a billionaire and more about the idea that they're trying to sort of buy it.

KHALID: Greenberg is not discounting the importance of money. And in fact, she says when she's worked in primaries where nobody really knows any of the candidates, the person who's spent the most money has won. But this Democratic presidential primary is different. People are already plugged into the race.

GREENBERG: You have a lot of candidates that are well-known. You have a lot of very engaged voters following the primary. Somebody coming in with money can't really - it's not a blank slate. People have - already have ideas of who they support. And so it's just much harder for that money to have influence.

KHALID: Bloomberg's money strategy is not just about advertising. It's also about hiring, especially in the states that will vote right after those initial primaries. Here's Karen Finney again.

FINNEY: The recent announcement that he's added 200 staffers on the ground in a number of the March Super Tuesday states, it changes the calculation a little bit for the candidates who are currently in.

KHALID: Bloomberg's strategy is based on the assumption that Democratic voters are anxious and not rallying around any single candidate. And his campaign thinks he has a path if no candidate emerges as the clear favorite after the first few states vote.

STEVE WILLIAMS: You don't need to have early primary states. He's got a network all across the country right now. What he has done nobody - nobody - has been able to match.

KHALID: That's Steve Williams, the mayor of Huntington, W.Va. That network he's referring to - it's mayors all across the country, mayors who trust Bloomberg and feel indebted to him because they've received millions of dollars in grants to build arts centers or fight climate change. After Bloomberg left office, he leveraged his personal fortune into helping other cities. Earlier this month, Williams endorsed Bloomberg, whose foundation gave his city assistance related to the opioid epidemic.

WILLIAMS: Somebody helps you, you help them. And it's amazing how our city has benefited because of Mayor Bloomberg's support.

KHALID: These mayors say it's not just about the money. It's about witnessing Bloomberg's expertise and judgment firsthand. Bloomberg is essentially running a general election campaign in the primaries. Earlier this week, he launched a digital ad depicting Democratic voters in battleground states, warning that Trump could win reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

BLOOMBERG: We need to wake up. In Michigan, the only one campaigning here is Donald Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As a Pennsylvanian, I understand there's a caucus in Iowa, but what about here?

KHALID: Michael Nutter, the former mayor of Philadelphia, recently endorsed Bloomberg and is now serving as his national political chair. And he says this general election outreach is part of their strategy.

MICHAEL NUTTER: We're going to places where Democrats, for the most part, are not going right now, where we have to win in order to win the White House in 2020.

KHALID: He points to his home state.

NUTTER: Pennsylvania doesn't vote until April, but there's an office now open in Philadelphia, and there'll be others in Pennsylvania way before.

KING: OK, so Asma, Bloomberg is basically trying to address the central question for Democrats, which is, who is the person who can beat President Trump?

KHALID: Yes. And, you know, as we have heard, campaigning in battleground states is a key part of it, but so is money. The Trump campaign and the Republican Party have raised $300 million from January through September, and we're going to get new fundraising numbers soon that will include the last three months, which was the time period of Trump's impeachment battle, so it's likely that, you know, those new numbers are going to be substantially higher. But in essence, Bloomberg's theory is that President Trump has buckets of money to spend, and Democrats need to be able to compete with that.

KING: NPR's Asma Khalid, thanks so much.

KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.