His uncertain debut on a TV debate stage in Nevada on Wednesday marked a significant moment in what many regard as a historic campaign that poses a huge question. Is it possible to buy your way to the US presidency?
While his rivals have been on the campaign trail for months, the former mayor of New York has been biding his time. He only announced his intention to run in the Democrat presidential candidate election in November, skipped the early voting contests, and until now has only made carefully choreographed personal appearances. He’s also spent a lot of his own money. And while avoiding scrutiny, the 78-year-old has soared in the polls.
Estimates suggest Bloomberg has already lavished $360m (£279m) of his own money on a barrage of ads on TV, radio and digital media. Put in a UK context, 75 parties and 18 campaign groups spent around just £43m between them in the 2017 general election.
And with a personal fortune of more than $60bn at his disposal (Forbes ranked him as the 12th wealthiest person in the world), Bloomberg’s campaign spending is certain to dwarf anything ever seen in US politics.
Who is Michael Bloomberg?
Born in a suburb of Boston, the 78-year-old gets his extraordinary wealth from the company he founded in 1981 after he was fired following 15 years in finance.
Bloomberg LP provides financial information to traders across the world, and is also a news agency. It is privately held, with Bloomberg himself owning most of the company (he has said he will sell it if he becomes president). Analysts estimate the company generated over $10bn in revenue last year.
Bloomberg was mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013, and originally ran as a Republican. But he left the party mid-way through his second mayoral term and won his third stint as an independent. He rejoined the Democrats in 2018.
His presidential campaign has proposed gun control measures, focussed on his ‘self-made man’ backstory and majored in his ability to beat Donald Trump, playing up to an online feud between the two (the president calls him ‘Mini Mike’). Curiously, he has proposed an open plan office at the White House and paid Instagram influencers to post memes in support of him.
He has a lot of money
The numbers are staggering. The millions Bloomberg has ploughed into his primary campaign is already more than any presidential candidate has ever spent on a primary push. In theory, he could spend just 10% of his $60bn net worth and it would come close to equaling the total cost of all US federal elections held in 2016. As well as being omnipresent on paid-for media, his money has bought his campaign the formidable staffing levels of a general election operation.
There is no precedent for this level of spending in any political campaign in American history, which means commentators are struggling to say with any degree of confidence whether or not it will work.
Bloomberg has vociferously defended his self-funded campaign by arguing that he doesn’t accept campaign contributions because he doesn’t want to be bought. “Those other people expect something from them,” he said about campaign donors to his rivals. “Nobody gives you money if they don’t expect something.” On the debate stage, Bloomberg stumbled over a question about releasing his tax returns, boasting he makes “a lot of money” and couldn’t prepare a return like an ordinary American via the TurboTax accountant.
He now faces scrutiny
By now entering the race and posing a genuine threat to their campaigns, rivals are certain to challenge Bloomberg over his record. He is only now beginning to face scrutiny over his record and previous statements on a range of issues from Wall Street power, stop-and-frisk, transgender rights, sexism and sexual harassment and civil liberties.
In the opening minutes of the TV debate, Elizabeth Warren went for the jugular. “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians,” Warren said. “And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”
“Democrats take a huge risk if we just substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” she added.
Sixty-four women have accused Bloomberg and his company, Bloomberg LP, of sexual harassment and sex discrimination. The businessman’s former staffers have alleged he told a pregnant employee to “Kill it!” and suggested other women at his company would offer sex to co-workers and clients.
When he was New York’s mayor, Bloomberg embraced a police strategy of detaining people they suspected of committing a crime. Known as ‘stop-and-frisk’, or ‘stop-and-search’ in the UK, the practice has faced criticism for its disproportionate impact on people of colour.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg faced the first flashpoint of his campaign as an audio clip of him defending the strategy in 2015 resurfaced.
In the clip shared on Twitter, Bloomberg can be heard saying children in minority neighborhoods need to be “thrown up against the wall” and frisked in order to reduce crime rates.
“Put a lot of cops in the street,” Bloomberg said while discussing what other cities can learn from New York City’s policing model. “Put those cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods.”
Bloomberg has recently reportedly said he was “sorry” and acknowledged it often led to the detention of blacks and Latinos.
Questions have also been raised over Bloomberg spending billions on Democratic candidates and left-of-centre causes, with some suggesting it helps to explain why an ex-Republican who opposes the Democrat party’s progressive grassroots can enjoy broad goodwill and even endorsements among the party’s elite. Critics say it squares with a long history of deploying billions to gain allies and silence critics, with no-one wanting to anger the rich guy who could keep their campaigns and causes afloat.
Dozens of mayors across the country have endorsed Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. His philanthropy provides significant support to cities and their mayors through its American Cities Initiative. He has funded arts and cultural programs in cities across the country. The mayors of those some of those cities, including San Francisco and Washington, DC, now back his campaign.
His rivals are calling him out
Bloomberg has come under heavy fire on the campaign trail as his poll numbers have surged and his formal entry into the race on March 3 draws closer. He is gaining traction in the race despite bypassing the traditional early voting states, focusing instead on the 14 states that vote in the Super Tuesday. On Tuesday, Bloomberg was in second place behind Bernie Sanders among Democrats in a Reuters/Ipsos national poll.
Sanders, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Warren and Pete Buttigieg have all accused Bloomberg of buying his way into the election and made clear they were eager to take him on in a debate.
“He thinks he can buy this election,” Sanders said at a rally in Nevada. “Well, I’ve got news for Mr Bloomberg — the American people are sick and tired of billionaires buying elections!”
At the debate, the other candidates noted the incongruity of one of the country’s richest men and a figure associated with racist policies running to represent a Democratic Party that relies on voters of colour and talks about building a more just, equitable society.
“I don’t think we look at Donald Trump and say we need someone richer in the White House,” Klobuchar said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden also criticised Bloomberg for resisting an Obama administration effort to rein in 'stop-and-frisk.
“He figured out it was a bad idea after we sent in monitors and said it must stop,” Biden said. “Even then, he continued the policy.”
But with more waves of Bloomberg ads coming, the attacks could be for nothing.