Michael Bloomberg’s only real path to the nomination was always a contested convention, where he could be able to further leverage his wealth and resources.
Michael Bloomberg has apparently decided to give away the game. Earlier on Tuesday, Bloomberg was asked by reporters in Florida if he is interested in a contested convention. “I don’t think I can win any other way,” he replied. On the 14 states voting on Super Tuesday, the former New York City mayor said: “I don’t know that we’re going to win any,” an astounding acknowledgment for a candidate who has so far poured more than half a billion dollars into the race. [Update: As it turned out, Bloomberg was right. He didn’t win any state on Super Tuesday, his only achievement winning the Democratic caucuses in American Samoa. On Wednesday, he dropped out.]
— Tim Perry (@tperry518) March 3, 2020
Speaking at a Fox News town hall in Virginia on Monday, hours before his first-ever appearance on primary ballots, Bloomberg explained, matter of factly, how he envisions the rest of the primary race will pan out: “The most likely scenario for the Democratic Party is no one has a majority—it goes to a convention where there’s horse-trading; there’s compromise. It doesn’t even have to be the leading candidate; it could be the one with a smaller number of delegates.”
Bloomberg later added: “If the rules say you can swap votes and make deals, then you can swap votes and make deals. And if you don’t like those rules, don’t play.”
It was a remarkable moment: a presidential candidate—also, the world’s 9th richest person—who has yet to win even a single delegate calmly explains how, through “horse-trading” and “deals,” he could beat candidates with more votes than him and win a race that by his own admission he has no chance of winning outright.
It also confirmed the Politico story last week, in which David Siders reported that Bloomberg has been “privately lobbying Democratic Party officials and donors allied with his moderate opponents to flip their allegiance to him—and block Bernie Sanders—in the event of a brokered national convention.” Apparently, Bloomberg has come to realize that his only chance of becoming the Democratic nominee is to bypass the democratic process. [And Tuesday’s results confirmed it: Bloomberg is so unpopular with Democratic voters that even after sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into Super Tuesday states, he’ll likely walk away with a fraction of their delegates. The results were so bad that Bloomberg is reportedly considering dropping out.]
The above scenario, and Bloomberg’s rooting for it, is the best vindication of every argument ever made about how extreme concentration of wealth and the uninterrupted flow of money into politics would corrupt American democracy. In a country where 70 percent of the citizenry are angry “because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power,” it’s also hard to fathom that this is a case made by a serious presidential candidate (who is also, mind you, one of the country’s richest and most powerful people.)
But as Bloomberg himself admitted [and as Tuesday’s results have shown], he can’t win the Democratic nomination in the traditional way: that is, getting the most votes. Which, four months and 18 primary contests after he launched his presidential campaign, finally answers the question that has preoccupied political commentators since November: Can Bloomberg’s unprecedented $500 million bet on his own electability actually pay off? No, it can’t. Bloomberg’s only real path to the nomination was always a contested convention, and his campaign has operated with this possibility in mind from the start.
The Bloomberg campaign, an ambitious gambit that involved skipping the first five primary contests entirely, investing half a billion dollars (and counting) of Bloomberg’s $60 billion fortune on political ads and a hiring frenzy so massive that it is now threatening to choke off local and state campaigns, has been described as a “political science experiment,” a “vanity campaign,” “too big to fail,” and “a giant lava cake that has oozed across the plate.” But the aptest description came from author Anand Giridharadas, who described it in a New York Times op-ed as “a valuable public service illustrating to the public how billionaire influence complicates any challenges to billionaire influence.”
More than anything, the Bloomberg campaign has always been a huge, unparalleled bet on the power of money to shape political outcomes. While Bloomberg has outspent all the rest of the field combined, he’s only spent a fraction of what he’s worth and has made clear that he intends to spend as much as needed to win. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg spent more than $160 million on TV ads aired in Super Tuesday states, accounting for almost 62 percent of all political television ads by Democratic presidential candidates aired in those states. In California alone, Bloomberg spent over $36 million on ads, compared with over $5 million for Sanders, the second-biggest advertiser. In addition to ads, Bloomberg’s fortune bought him a vast political machine “that looks like nothing else in politics today.” As the New York Times reports:
“He has hired more than 2,400 people to fuel his campaign, paying them premiums and outfitting them in sweatshirts and fanny packs bearing his name. He has opened more than 200 offices from Maine to California, with more than 100 in states that will participate in Tuesday’s coast-to-coast Democratic primaries.”
And then there’s Bloomberg’s philanthropy and political contributions, billions of dollars given over 10 years to NGOs, cash-strapped cities, and political candidates, which the New York Times described as “a national infrastructure of influence, image-making and unspoken suasion that has helped transform a former Republican mayor of New York City into a plausible contender for the Democratic nomination.” As the Times’ Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish wrote, Bloomberg’s
“domestic philanthropy has also overlapped with his political agenda, tying him closely to powerful progressive interest groups and amassing reservoirs of gratitude, admiration and influence across the country.”
As journalist Blake Zeff wrote, “the degree to which Michael Bloomberg is using his fortune to fundamentally alter and manipulate US politics to his personal advantage extends way beyond ads.” Bloomberg’s contributions have allowed him to win key allies and goodwill, as well as crucial endorsements. Through Bloomberg Philanthropies, he has given $350 million in “grants, technical assistance and education programs” to 196 different cities. Many of these mayors now form the “spine” of his presidential campaign, and all of his mayoral endorsements, in fact, have come from mayors he gave money to, according to the Times. They all “attended his prestigious boot camp at Harvard that gives the mayors access to ongoing strategic advice from Bloomberg-funded experts.”
In the seven years since he ended his tenure as New York City mayor, Bloomberg has become one of the biggest donors to the Democratic Party, giving more than $100 million before the 2018 midterms. This, in turn, earned him more influence and more reach within the party. Bloomberg himself, in yet another moment of unexpected candor, almost acknowledged the transactional element of his political contributions when he spoke about the dozens of new Democratic representatives that entered Congress following the midterms and accidentally said, “I bough…I got them.” In line with his method of purchasing political support, The Intercept’s Akela Lacy reported that Bloomberg has hired the vice-chairs of the Democratic party in California and Texas—both Super Tuesday states—as senior advisors to his campaign.
Michael Bloomberg accidentally starts saying “I bought them” in reference to the dozens of freshmen House members who helped flip the house to blue.
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) February 26, 2020
From its inception, the Bloomberg campaign has been built on brute force, the goal being to make Bloomberg so ubiquitous that he could easily monopolize voters’ attention and therefore, maybe, their votes. To that end, his campaign has paid social media “influencers” and hired hundreds of so-called “deputy digital organizers,” giving each $2,500 a month to praise Bloomberg on their social media accounts. As Politico’s Laura Barrón-López noted, though, some of his online tactics have veered into the realm of disinformation, such as when his campaign shared doctored videos and fake quotes attributed to Bernie Sanders—allegedly an attempt at humor.
As of this writing, at least, all of this doesn’t seem to be working as hoped. In California, polls showed him as a distant fourth before voting started today, behind the frontrunner Sanders, a resurgent Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren. And in Texas, a state in which the Bloomberg campaign has spent $64 million on TV ads alone, polls showed Bloomberg in third place. With the party’s moderate wing coalescing around Biden, Bloomberg headed to Super Tuesday as almost an afterthought.
The reasons for this should be clear to anyone. Despite the enormous sums he spent on ads touting his achievements and character, Bloomberg remains a fundamentally unpopular candidate. A former Republican with a history of sexist remarks, opposing unions, and supporting the Iraq War, who defended Wall Street in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and oversaw an incredibly racist policing regime as mayor of New York City, his two disastrous debate appearances have not made him more popular. A recent Business Insider poll showed that 49 percent of Democrats would be unsatisfied with him as the nominee. In South Carolina last week, exit polls showed that nearly seven in 10 SC voters hold an unfavorable opinion of Bloomberg, far more than any other candidate.
The Bloomberg campaign, of course, knows all this, which is why it has apparently given up on winning by conventional means and moved on to a strategy built around lobbying for the support of party officials and donors in a brokered convention. [That is, if Bloomberg doesn’t just quit beforehand]. This strategy, after all, fits much better with the well-established modus operandi of Bloomberg, who literally bought his third term as mayor. As David Dayen recent noted:
“In 2009, he successfully got city law changed to run for a third term, something Rudy Giuliani suggested after 9/11 but couldn’t himself pull off…He got this done in part by seeding nonprofit charities that then supported the term-limit change with $60 million through his philanthropic fund. This is a persistent pattern in Bloomberg’s political life: buying off anyone who can be bought for their support or their silence.”
Oligarch Is as Oligarch Does
All this brings to mind Bloomberg’s least-favorite pejorative.
Ever since he entered the presidential race four months ago, Bloomberg has been called a racist, a sexist, and an “arrogant billionaire.” He’d been repeatedly accused of trying to buy the presidency, and has been characterized as an apologist for tyranny because of his reluctance to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dictator. (A reluctance that likely stems from his numerous conflict of interest).
But there’s one charge that has particularly irked Bloomberg and his supporters—that he is an oligarch. Last month, the Bloomberg campaign put out photos of campaign offices vandalized with graffitis or taped with signs saying “oligarch.” The campaign blamed the “derogatory” rhetoric of the Sanders campaign, which has repeatedly referred to Bloomberg as an oligarch, for these incidents. When Sanders surrogate Nina Turner called Bloomberg an oligarch on MSNBC last month, she was lambasted by both host Chris Matthews and MSNBC contributor Jason Johnson (who, bizarrely, later described both Sanders and movie star Tyler Perry as oligarchs).
But it’s difficult to argue that the term oligarch doesn’t fit Bloomberg. It’s not just his immense wealth that earns Bloomberg the title of oligarch, but rather the way in which he has leveraged this wealth to further his quest for political power: purchasing limitless ad time to dominate media coverage, buying your way onto the debate stage, and using philanthropy as a way to amass support and key endorsements from allies who likely would not have endorsed him otherwise.
What’s more, a scenario in which backroom deals and “horse-trading” lead to the race being called for the candidate with the most resources, not the one with the most votes, is the very definition of oligarchy. That Bloomberg is willing to discuss such a scenario in favorable terms, let alone openly advocate for it, is incredibly telling and goes to show how right Louis Brandeis was when he famously said that “We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
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