At least one American billionaire won't be running for President in 2020. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently told the world that he doesn't think he can win as a Democrat and is dropping out of the race before he formally joined it. His announcement naturally brought new hope to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who's mounting an independent run of his own. Perhaps Schultz can be the billionaire to capture the public mind next year?
Not that Bloomberg's stepping away from politics. Instead of running for office, he'll spend hundreds of millions of dollars to mobilize Americans around issues like climate change and gun violence, with an eye toward building support for an eventual Democratic nominee. The Kochs and their allies may have pulled back somewhat from the political process on the right. But Bloomberg apparently envisions an equivalent to their issue-focused network, albeit with a vastly different agenda.
Bloomberg echoes another wealthy Democrat, Tom Steyer. Both floated the idea running for the White House, and both have now decided to focus on issues dear to their hearts (Steyer famously spent tens of millions to promote policies to remedy anthropogenic climate change in 2016, with no discernible effect anywhere).
By contrast, Schultz seems to be genuinely convinced that the public is hungry for a candidate in the mushy middle—a Ross Perot for the 2000s—notwithstanding the fact that socially liberal/fiscally conservative voters make up a vanishingly small percentage of the electorate.
All seem disconnected from the biggest trend in American politics: the decision by millions of Americans to take responsibility for our politics and become active in the process themselves. The trend started as far back as the grassroots opposition to the Iraq War and the 2004 candidacy of Howard Dean.
It picked up speed with Obama's campaign and the Tea Party opposition. By 2016, conservative grassroots enthusiasm helped put Donald Trump in the White House (with an assist from data-targeted digital outreach), sparking a resistance movement that has elected Democrats across the country and recaptured the House in 2018.
From a political sense, Trump is the biggest billionaire of them all, even if he is loath to spend his own money on his campaigns. But the small-dollar donor list he built in just a few months in 2016 has already helped put over $100 million in his campaign coffers, and we can expect that his supporters will continue to give generously to keep him in office.
Trump aside, the Democrats have most decisively embraced grassroots fundraising, with results that could upend plenty of assumptions about how the race will go. The party itself has put grassroots fundraising into the equation determining which candidates will walk onto the stage at their first debates this summer, so far requiring donations from "65,000 people in at least 20 different states" to make the cut.
Several candidates have already surpassed that mark or will soon, and we've already become accustomed to "X Democrat raised over $1 million the day (s)he announced" stories in the press. For example, Bernie Sanders raised $5.9 million from some 225,000 donors in the first 24 hours of his campaign, while Kamala Harris did $110,000 in merchandise sales in 12 hours, on her way to a $1.5 million opening-day haul.
Those numbers were impressive, although not surprising. In an environment in which a Democrat running for Senate in Texas can raise almost $80 million, we should expect the party's top-tier candidates to rake in big bucks when they announce.
Less predictable? The fact that Washington governor Jay Inslee raised over a million dollars in a weekend when he announced his presidential candidacy, despite widespread sentiment in the political community that his campaign is quixotic at best (his strong stance on climate change resonated more with the grassroots than the media elites).
This early in the cycle, Democratic donors are almost certainly spreading their money among several campaigns, unsure of who will win, but happy to boost them all to viability. At a Kirsten Gillibrand fundraising house party in Austin a few weeks ago, a host told a friend of mine that Democratic donors should consider investing in their top five candidates to help make sure that they all get into the debates.
With great grassroots fundraising comes great responsibility — to the grassroots. Candidates funded by small donors are naturally more likely to see themselves as beholden to the people who helped put them into office, while voters may rightly suspect the loyalties of a campaign paid for by a handful of billionaires. The last time Michael Bloomberg ran for office, he spent almost $200 of his own money for EVERY VOTE he received. Policy positions aside, a Democratic candidate spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect himself seems out of tune with the times, and unlikely to succeed.
What will happen when a grassroots-funded Democrat goes up against a gold-plated Trump campaign? So far, Trump appears to be doubling-down on a strategy to mobilize his base, while Democrats hope to reach beyond their core supporters to build a broader coalition.
Neither side is likely to lack for cash or fervent supporters. As for Schultz? If he runs, I suspect that he'll functionally be pouring money in a big hole and burning it, like Steyer in 2016. Of course, if his fire is bright enough, he might just entice enough votes away from the Democrats to reelect Trump. One billionaire accidentally electing another in a year dominated by grassroots energy? How's that for political irony.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org