Mike Bloomberg wants Democrats to send a billionaire to fight a billionaire in November. To convince them that's a good idea, he's spending money at a rate and a scale never seen before.
We know it has an effect: he’s risen in the polls, and his huge media buys have squeezed his rivals for the presidential nomination by forcing them to pay more for suddenly scarce ad inventory. But as he attempts to ride a wave of cash to the White House, is he hurting other Democrats up and down the ballot?
I saw how one rich guy could change the advertising landscape personally late last year when I ran a sizeable Facebook ad campaign targeting early-voting states for a national advocacy group. While our seven-week campaign was in progress, Tom Steyer started spending big in Iowa and New Hampshire, including on Facebook. The result? Our cost to acquire a petition signature more than doubled in those two states, even with plenty of ongoing experimentation and testing to optimize our content and targeting.
Steyer may no longer be an issue, but Bloomberg's been more than willing to pursue an even larger paid-media blitzkrieg strategy, in the process creating a lead in the advertising wars now stunning to visualize. Converting money into political power is nothing new for him, though, since he spent about $183 for every vote he got when he won his third term as New York mayor in 2009. That's a bargain compared with the $1600 apparently Steyer spent per vote on his campaign this cycle, but hey, the night is still young.
Bloomberg's buying more than just ads, though: he's paying big for staff. At February's Reed Awards ceremony, consultants were agog at the report that he was giving kids right out of college $6,000/month to work as field organizers — a job many young people do as volunteers hoping to get hired for a pittance. State campaign directors were apparently being offered twice as much, letting them walk away from a campaign season with some real money in the bank.
Of course, mercenary staff theoretically aren't as committed to a campaign as someone willing to half-volunteer their time for months on end, but large paychecks do tend to focus the mind. How can down-ballot campaigns compete with such largesse? They can't, just as they can't compete with a media-buying machine apparently intent on appearing at least once per half-hour slot on every screen in America. Careful digital targeting can help candidates for state legislature or city council make the most of their paid-media dollars, but it won’t help much if Mike’s bought up most of the inventory.
Even if he drops out of the race, Bloomberg's apparently prepared to keep spending to help beat Trump in November, though we have to assume the pace would drop once he's not trying to win primaries. And of course, he'd no longer need those gold-plated field organizers and state directors, so they should be free to move on to where they're needed.
But if Bloomberg runs a presidential-level digital-media operation all through the year, he might end up smothering the voices of down-ballot Democrats the party will need if they want to get something done next year. Like governing.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.