Billionaire candidates upend 2020 contest

Greg Nash, Getty images

The Democratic presidential primary is suddenly awash in billionaire cash, angering the left and presenting new hurdles for candidates in the final stretch to the Iowa caucuses.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and activist Tom Steyer, both billionaires who are largely self-funding their campaigns, have surpassed the $100 million mark, leading to accusations that they’re trying to buy the nomination.

That development is particularly galling for liberals at a time when wealth inequality is a top concern on the left. Two of the candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have fashioned their campaigns around warring with the billionaire class. 

“This is how a corrupt political system works,” said Mike Casca, the communications director for the Sanders campaign. “The difference now is that instead of funding super PACs and donating huge checks, billionaires are trying to buy our democracy out in the open. When Bernie is in the White House, you better believe that’s going to change.”

The flood of new billionaire spending could have a lasting impact on the wide-open race for the Democratic nomination, which at the moment features four top contenders in a desperate dash for voter support with the caucuses only two months away.

Bloomberg and Steyer have been an inescapable presence on the airwaves and on social media, drowning out their rivals and hampering last-ditch efforts by struggling candidates relying on more modest ad buys to qualify for the debates and stay relevant in the race.

Steyer is one of only six candidates to qualify for the December debate, and new polls show Bloomberg, who only entered the race last month, running ahead of several contenders who have been in the race for almost a year, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who dropped out on Tuesday after running short on funds.

“I’m not a billionaire,” Harris told supporters in a goodbye email. “I can’t fund my own campaign.”

With Bloomberg’s entrance into the primary race late last month, the presence of billionaire money has become even more apparent. 

He invested some $37 million in television advertising around the time he launched his campaign on Nov. 24, eclipsing the amount spent on television by the entire Democratic primary field so far, with the exception of Steyer, who has spent roughly $60 million on television since July, according to data compiled by the media tracking firm Advertising Analytics.

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that Bloomberg had dropped tens of millions of dollars more on a new national ad campaign.

Their digital efforts have been just as aggressive. In the last week of November, Steyer and Bloomberg spent a combined $2.1 million on Facebook advertising. That’s roughly three times the $714,000 their 13 Democratic rivals spent on the platform over the same period.

Steyer and Bloomberg are also dominating other digital platforms. Since launching his campaign on Nov. 24, Bloomberg has spent more than $4.5 million on Google advertising — more than any other candidate in the race. Steyer isn’t far behind. He has dropped more than $4.1 million since July, according to the company’s most recent data.

By comparison, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has spent about $4 million since launching his presidential exploratory committee in January, Warren has spent about $3.3 million on the platform since the beginning of the year and Sanders has dropped just under $2.3 million on Google advertising since February.

The heavy digital investments by Bloomberg and Steyer may prove crucial to their political prospects in 2020. Both men — and Bloomberg, especially — entered the primary contest months after many of their rivals for the nomination and are scrambling to build their name recognition in key states. 

For Bloomberg, digital outreach carries even more weight. He’s planning to skip the four early primaries and caucuses that are seen as critical to securing the nomination and is looking instead to establish a presence in later nominating contests in hopes of making up for lost delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“Online advertising on platforms like Facebook is a very targeted, clear way for campaigns to speak directly to voters where they get their information,” said Kyle Tharp, the communications director for the progressive nonprofit Acronym, which tracks digital spending in the presidential race.

“With deep pockets and relatively late entries into the race, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer’s campaigns have both bet that a heavy investment in online advertising can help them quickly build support and rise in the polls.” 

There is roiling anger at Bloomberg and Steyer on the left, where many view the billionaires as embarking on hopeless vanity projects at a time when their cash would be better spent on protecting the Democratic majority in the House and recapturing control of the Senate.

And some Democrats are grousing that Bloomberg and Steyer have artificially inflated poll numbers due to their independent spending, an important metric in 2020 due to the Democratic National Committee’s debate qualification criteria.

Steyer is barely registering in the national polls, topping out at 3 percent in a CNN survey released last month.

But Steyer qualified for the December debate on the strength of his poll numbers in South Carolina and Nevada, where he is spending heavily and has reached 5 percent support in four qualifying polls.

Steyer has also reached the 200,000-donor threshold — a sign his campaign says is evidence he’s playing by the rules.

“Tom entered this race relatively late and he’s not a household name, so we recognized that we needed to introduce him to the early state voters and the best way to do that is through advertising,” said Alberto Lammers, the national press secretary for the Steyer campaign. 

“He doesn’t have a seat on a high-profile committee in Congress and he hasn’t been running for office for years, like others have, so he’s playing catch-up. But you need a message too, and his message about rooting out corporate corruption and making climate change a top priority is resonating. A lot of other candidates are spending a lot and their poll numbers aren’t going up. Ours are.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, opened up at 5 percent support nationally in the latest Morning Consult survey.

And a poll from The Hill-Harris X found him at 6 percent support, while tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro are all stuck at 2 percent.

Klobuchar has qualified for the December debate, but Yang still needs to hit the polling threshold, and both may find themselves struggling to qualify in January if their poll numbers don’t improve.

That makes Bloomberg one more hurdle for their campaigns to overcome ahead of the February caucuses in Iowa.

And there are questions swirling among Democrats about how Bloomberg and Steyer might affect the outcome if they stay in the race and siphon off a chunk of support from the top centrist contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

“It definitely makes it seem likelier that we head into a contested convention in Milwaukee,” said one Democratic fundraiser who is considering supporting Bloomberg.

Tags 2020 Democratic presidential candidates 2020 presidential campaign Amy Klobuchar Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders billionaires Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Michael Bloomberg Pete Buttigieg Tom Steyer

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video