They’re flooding the airwaves with campaign ads targeting President Donald Trump. And they’re paying for them with their own money.
Billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their efforts to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. And so far, it seems like that strategy is working.
Bloomberg – who skipped the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary – is mounting in nationwide polls, while Steyer is gaining ground in South Carolina, a key state that votes later this month.
But some of their rivals are crying foul, accusing them of corrupting the party’s contest for the right to take on Trump in November.
“He’s part of the problem,” frontrunner Bernie Sanders said of Bloomberg in an interview with SiriusXM radio on Sunday.
“Look: Bloomberg – anybody else in America – has the right to run for president, but I think in a democracy, you do not have the right to buy the presidency.”
Flood of ads
From when he entered the White House race in November until end of 2019, the 77-year-old Bloomberg, a media mogul and former New York mayor, spent about $200 million of his own money on ads, his campaign told AFP.
According to tracking firm Advertising Analytics, he spent more than $300 million through early February.
“It’s completely unique. There’s been nothing like this in the history of American politics,” Bill Sweeney, an expert on politics at American University, said.
Bloomberg – the ninth richest person in the world, according to Forbes, with a net worth of more than $55 billion – has shaken up the Democratic presidential campaign.
While most other contenders have been on the trail for more than a year meeting voters, the ad blitz by the one-time Republican has already had a serious impact.
Bloomberg is now running third in nationwide polls behind Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden, according to an average compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Of course, polls at this stage of the game are to be taken with a grain of salt, because the race really is a state-by-state affair.
But even on that level, Bloomberg is investing, building a vast grassroots staff and setting up campaign offices. Some of his rivals cannot afford to match such a presence.
Bloomberg is looking ahead to Super Tuesday on March 3, when voters in 14 states will cast their ballots. He will also formally skip the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary.
Trump, himself a New York billionaire, has also hit out at Bloomberg, saying on Tuesday that the ex-mayor is “just buying his way in.”
Sweeney says that the Republican president spent $60 million of his money when he ran for his party’s nomination in 2016.
But Bloomberg’s rivals are leaning into the issue.
“It really is absurd that we have a guy who is prepared to spend, already, many hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads,” said Sanders, a US senator from Vermont.
Liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren chimed in, also accusing Bloomberg of “buying” his way into the next televised debate, after a controversial rule change will probably allow him to qualify.
Bloomberg’s own team defends his big spending as an easy way to ensure his integrity.
“Unlike everyone else running for president, Mike Bloomberg has never taken a cent in campaign contributions from special interests or anyone else,” campaign spokesman Stu Loeser said.
“Mike also gives away most of his money through philanthropy to try and help people live longer and better lives.”
Bloomberg is active in the fight against climate change, and the scourge of gun violence in America. He also gave $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins University in 2018 for student financial aid.
What do voters think?
Beyond Bloomberg, Steyer – a one-time hedge fund manager – is also in the Democratic race.
The 62-year-old Californian is worth $1.6 billion, Forbes says. He’s already spent tens of millions of dollars on ads in early voting states.
In South Carolina – where he has shelled out $19 million, according to CNN – he is running in second place according to a polling average. For now, Biden is still the frontrunner in the state.
Steyer has also backed up the ads with lots of time campaigning on the ground, sending teams of surrogates and his wife to rally voters in the state.
“In the United States, a candidate can spend his or her own funds. And there’s no restriction on that,” Sweeney notes.
“The ultimate in all of this is the voters. There are plenty of examples of very wealthy people who spent millions of dollars and lose because the voters don’t agree.”
Steyer knows that all too well.
After spending $18.4 million in New Hampshire, according to Advertising Analytics – compared with $5.3 million spent by Sanders – he only ended up with 3.6% of the vote.
That translates to about 10,700 voters or more than $1,600 spent on each one he won over.
Not just money; barbs
Trump and Bloomberg locked horns Thursday in a blaze of caustic tweets as the former New York mayor climbed in the polls in his drive to capture the Democratic presidential nomination.
In the latest skirmish between the New York billionaires, Trump hit out at “loser” Bloomberg, who responded that the president was a “circus barking clown.”
For days now, an especially aggressive post-impeachment Trump has been going after Bloomberg, whom he has known for decades.
Trump repeatedly comments on the stature of the former mayor, who is estimated to be around five foot eight inches (1.73 meters) tall, calling him “mini Mike.” Trump stands at six foot three inches (1.98 meters).
“Mini Mike Bloomberg is a LOSER who has money but can’t debate and has zero presence, you will see,” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Mini Mike Bloomberg is a LOSER who has money but can’t debate and has zero presence, you will see. He reminds me of a tiny version of Jeb “Low Energy” Bush, but Jeb has more political skill and has treated the Black community much better than Mini! https://t.co/qIef5VhjDr
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2020
In another broadside, he described his rival as “a 5’4″ mass of dead energy who does not want to be on the debate stage with these professional politicians.”
On Tuesday, Trump accused Bloomberg of racism, retweeting part of a 2015 recording in which the media tycoon defended the police policy known as “stop and frisk,” which targeted non-whites during his time running New York.
The recording was widely shared on Twitter.
Below is a recording of Mike Bloomberg’s 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute where he defends the use of the very controversial “stop and frisk” policy.
Maybe Russians or republicans started the #BloombergIsRacist – but is it wrong? This is shameful.
— InMinivanHell (@inminivanhell) February 11, 2020
In November, just before entering the presidential race, Bloomberg changed course and apologized for the policy.
Bloomberg hit back at Trump on Thursday.
“@realDonaldTrump – we know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown,” Bloomberg tweeted.
“They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence. I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will,” he added.
.@realDonaldTrump – we know many of the same people in NY. Behind your back they laugh at you & call you a carnival barking clown. They know you inherited a fortune & squandered it with stupid deals and incompetence.
I have the record & the resources to defeat you. And I will. https://t.co/fO4azmZaUg
— Mike Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) February 13, 2020
Bloomberg’s campaign said Thursday it has invested in sponsored Instagram meme content in a new illustration of his record spending aimed at securing the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Mike Bloomberg 2020 has teamed up with social creators to collaborate with the campaign, including the meme world,” campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said in an email to AFP.
“While a meme strategy may be new to presidential politics, we’re betting it will be an effective component to reach people where they are and compete with President Trump’s powerful digital operation,” Singh added.
Trump’s surprise election win in 2016 was attributed in part to his use of social media, which was much more aggressive than his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Among the Instagram content creators recruited by Bloomberg are grapejuiceboys and tank.sinatra, each of which has millions of followers.
On Wednesday they published screenshots of humorous (but fake) private messages with Bloomberg on Instagram – and which they said were sponsored by him.
In one of them, the 77-year-old candidate says that his granddaughter showed him the account.
In one post, Bloomberg appears to ask the account to post a meme to let everyone know he is “the cool candidate” – along with a picture of him in oversized shorts, a Polo-style shirt and a rust-colored vest.
In the meme, the candidate agrees to pay “a billion dollars” for the post.
The light-hearted approach reflects a willingness to deflect, using self-deprecating humor to mock his age and his wealth.
Singh did not say how much Bloomberg might spend on memes, which are particularly popular with younger people.
Bloomberg has smashed campaign spending records in an effort to win the nomination, and critics argue he is effectively trying to buy the US presidency his vast fortune.