As of Tuesday, Michael Bloomberg had spent $233 million on digital and television ads. This spending purchased him, according to an impressive visualization from the Washington Post
, 30,000 digital ads a minute. The billionaire candidate for the Democratic nomination has spent more on advertising than every other Democratic candidate combined. Bloomberg has also spent much more than President Trump, who has invested a relatively paltry $19 million in digital and TV ads.
One view of the 2016 election is that it was won by the candidate who had the superior mastery of Facebook — Trump, whose campaign did a now-legendary job of creating and iterating on direct-response ads that built up his email list and donor rolls while also continuously serving up red meat to his fan base. If you hold that view, you might look at Bloomberg’s campaign and wonder if this cycle’s Facebook power user and assume he was about to walk away with the nomination.
Bloomberg’s spending raised concerns
among more progressive Democrats, who worried that a general election in which two extremely wealthy men competed against one another largely on the basis of their spending power represented another step down the road to authoritarian plutocracy. These concerns were amplified by Bloomberg’s shameless
use of influencer marketing
, which — thanks to Facebook’s rather confused rules on the subject
— arguably allows him to skirt transparency and fact-checking requirements.
All of which made Wednesday’s Democratic debate, in which Bloomberg squared off against his rivals for the first time, feel like a critical moment. Would this be the stage on which Bloomberg, flush with cash and dominating social platforms and TV advertising, steamroll his rivals?
It would not be.
,” read the headline in … Bloomberg. Here are (brave!) reporters Craig Gordon and Gregory Korte:
He spent most of the debate on the defensive, from attacks by Warren but also moderates Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar who all took turns taking swipes at the former mayor. He was too busy defending his record to talk it up much, and there were only flashes of the straight-talking candidate familiar to New Yorkers who made him mayor three times, when he was a Republican who won in the heavily Democratic city.
It was the first time many Americans saw Bloomberg live on a debate stage, and not just in his ubiquitous television ads on which he has spent more than $400 million, a record in a presidential campaign. There was a wide gap between the smooth, confident candidate portrayed in those ads and the less sure-footed and at times irritable candidate on the debate stage.
“Let me finish,” he said several times as the debate intensified. “What am I, chicken liver?” he added when he couldn’t get attention from the moderators.
It was indeed the opinion of the other candidates on stage, and possibly the moderators, and definitely the people I happened to be watching the debate with, that Bloomberg was chicken liver. This opinion was heightened by what BuzzFeed
characterized, accurately, as “savage takedowns”
from the other Democrats. (The takedowns on Twitter were, as you may have seen, even more savage
Of course, it’s all just talk until the next primary, which is set for Saturday in Nevada, and which Sen. Bernie Sanders is favored to win
. But the real test will come March 3rd — Super Tuesday — when 14 states hold primaries. National polls suggest that Sanders is in the lead
. It seems increasingly plausible that after March 3rd, Sanders will be the presumptive nominee — and the entire story about Bloomberg, platforms, and money will be a footnote in history.
Which isn’t to say that platforms won’t play a big role in the election. Political consultants I’ve spoken with say they are likely to play an outsized role, particularly in how less informed voters — think white working class men in the Midwest — get their news.
But after this week’s events, if Michael Bloomberg is to play a role, it seems increasingly likely that it won’t be as a candidate.