Can cash buy the Dem nom­i­na­tion?

Two bil­lion­aires are try­ing to make po­lit­i­cal pur­chase

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Brian Slodysko, Meg Kinnard and Michelle L. Price

WASH­ING­TON — Bil­lion­aires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are test­ing an un­proven the­ory in the con­test for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion: that their vast per­sonal wealth can buy the tro­phy.

Not since Texas busi­ness­man Ross Perot spent $63.5 mil­lion in 1992 (more than $100 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars) on his run for pres­i­dent as an in­de­pen­dent have can­di­dates for the White House banked so much on their mas­sive for­tunes alone on de­liv­er­ing re­sults. Donald Trump spent about $65 mil­lion of his own money in 2016. Bloomberg has spent more than three times that amount in a lit­tle over two months.

Bloomberg, who founded a fi­nan­cial data and me­dia com­pany and served three terms as New York mayor, and Steyer, a Cal­i­for­nia busi­ness­man, have sat­u­rated key pri­mary states with hun­dreds of mil­lions in TV and so­cial me­dia ad­ver­tis­ing. They’ve also re­cruited top staff with above­mar­ket salaries while of­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures and groups gen­er­ous con­tri­bu­tions as they work to build net­works of sup­port.

To the dis­may of many in the party, it might work.

“Peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the bil­lion­aires at their own peril,” said Re­becca Katz, a pro­gres­sive Demo­cratic strate­gist in New York. “Just be­cause you have all the money in the world doesn’t mean you will win the nom­i­na­tion and be­come pres­i­dent. But it’s a hell of a head start.”

Democrats have long grap­pled with the sway the wealthy hold over pol­i­tics, an is­sue that took on added grav­ity af­ter the Supreme Court’s land­mark 2010 Ci­ti­zens United de­ci­sion cleared the way for the flood of cash now cours­ing through the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

The party’s pro­gres­sive wing sought to make the 2020 con­test a ref­er­en­dum on the taint of big money in pol­i­tics. They cham­pi­oned small on­line do­na­tions from the grass­roots base as the purest in­di­ca­tor of voter en­thu­si­asm.

Bloomberg and Steyer have turned that ar­gu­ment in­side out by elim­i­nat­ing the need for donors al­to­gether, though un­like Bloomberg, Steyer does ac­cept cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions.

“There is no ques­tion that the sys­tem is set up to ben­e­fit peo­ple who can self­fund,” said Jared Leopold, a se­nior ad­viser to Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the 2020 pres­i­den­tial race last sum­mer af­ter strug­gling to gain trac­tion. “They are twisted rules, but that’s the re­al­ity.”

Bloomberg and Steyer flirted with pres­i­den­tial bids early last year but pulled back at the last minute. Yet af­ter no clear front-run­ner emerged this cy­cle, Steyer, who is worth an es­ti­mated $1.6 bil­lion by Forbes, en­tered the race in July. Bloomberg — whose net worth Forbes said is greater than $50 bil­lion — an­nounced his cam­paign in Novem­ber.

By De­cem­ber, Steyer had spent more than $60 mil­lion on ads, ac­cord­ing to the track­ing firm Ad­ver­tis­ing An­a­lyt­ics. Bloomberg, mean­while, crossed the $200 mil­lion ad spend­ing thresh­old Fri­day morn­ing, the firm an­nounced, a sum that nearly sur­passes the $222 mil­lion spent by the en­tire rest of the field.

For now, their big-money ap­proach ap­pears to be pay­ing some div­i­dends.

Steyer made waves Thurs­day when Fox News polls in Ne­vada and South

Carolina mea­sured his sup­port in those states in dou­ble dig­its, though he fell well be­low that mark in na­tional polls re­leased in De­cem­ber, as well as in Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

Bloomberg has not fo­cused his at­ten­tion on the early pri­mary and cau­cus states and has in­stead ze­roed in on the larger del­e­gate-rich states on Su­per Tues­day and later pri­maries. He has reg­is­tered mids­in­gle-digit sup­port in na­tional polls but has risen steadily along with his ad­ver­tis­ing.

He has come in be­low for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, as well as Ver­mont Sen. Bernie San­ders and Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren, but higher in some polls than ei­ther Steyer or some of the es­tab­lished can­di­dates.

Their wealth has given them a re­siliency that other promi­nent can­di­dates in the race did not en­joy, which has­tened their exit, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, New York Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand, for­mer Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Inslee.

“If you are out-of-sight and out-of-mind in the air wars, it’s hard to en­vi­sion a cir­cum­stance where you can come back and win the nom­i­na­tion. That’s just the harsh re­al­ity of a crowded field,“said Ian Sams, who was Har­ris’ lead spokesman be­fore she left the race last month. “No sin­gle fac­tor led to Ka­mala’s exit from this race as much as a lack of fi­nan­cial re­sources.”

Ju­lian Cas­tro, who dropped out of the 2020 race two weeks ago, said the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee should ad­dress the is­sues posed by Steyer and Bloomberg.

“The DNC is go­ing to have to go back and look at th­ese thresh­olds, de­bate thresh­olds and the fact that you have peo­ple that can buy their way onto the stage,” the for­mer Obama hous­ing sec­re­tary said Fri­day.

Cas­tro noted that Har­ris, who was once con­sid­ered a Demo­cratic front-run­ner, dropped out of the race on the same day in De­cem­ber that Steyer qual­i­fied for that month’s de­bate.

Cas­tro de­scribed him as some­one who “just came on the scene and started pump­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars into the process to ar­ti­fi­cially in­flate those sup­port num­bers.”

“That’s not the best way to do things,” Cas­tro said.

Bloomberg has had a vir­tual mo­nop­oly on pres­i­den­tial ad­ver­tis­ing and cam­paign­ing in the states that fol­low the tra­di­tional start­ing-gun states of Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

In Ge­or­gia, which won’t vote un­til af­ter Su­per Tues­day, he re­cently do­nated $5 mil­lion to a vot­ing rights po­lit­i­cal group led by Stacey Abrams, a ris­ing star who nearly be­came Ge­or­gia’s first black fe­male gov­er­nor in 2018, los­ing a close race.

Dur­ing an ap­pear­ance there on Fri­day, he de­scribed him­self as a “mid­dle-class kid” who was “lucky enough” to fin­ish col­lege and find suc­cess.

He only glanc­ingly re­ferred to his own stag­ger­ing wealth, not­ing that he’s not ac­cept­ing con­tri­bu­tions from any­one.

Steyer, too, ap­pears to be ben­e­fit­ing from lim­ited com­pe­ti­tion in states that have yet to draw a glut of ad­ver­tis­ing from the other can­di­dates, most of whom are more fo­cused on Iowa and New Hamp­shire.

In Ne­vada, where Steyer was al­ready known as the man run­ning com­mer­cials call­ing for Trump to be im­peached, his face and voice dom­i­nate the air­waves — un­like most of the rest of the 2020 field. He also in­vested in con­spic­u­ous elec­tronic bill­boards that beam his name at driv­ers on high­ways around Las Ve­gas.

MARK FELIX/GETTY-AFP

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mike Bloomberg meets with sup­port­ers at the Hap­pi­est Hour restau­rant in Dallas.

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