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 above-market salaries while offering political figures and groups generous contributions as they work to build networks of support.
“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.”
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 self-fund,” 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.”
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 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,” 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.”