At What Point Does Bloomberg’s Unprecedented Ad Spending Amount to Bribery of the Media?

Bloomberg has already spent $400 million on ads, making hardly a dent in his $60 billion fortune.

Julianne Tveten February 18, 2020

NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg opposes the new anti-discriminatory legislation in vain—the City Council passed it by a veto-proof majority.

Reach­ing stag­ger­ing heights, bil­lion­aire and for­mer New York City May­or Michael Bloomberg’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial cam­paign has exceed­ed $400 mil­lion in spend­ing for tele­vi­sion, radio and online adver­tis­ing. In ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, the cam­paign announced plans to dra­mat­i­cal­ly increase that num­ber — still a pal­try frac­tion of Bloomberg’s for­tune of over $60 bil­lion.

It’s far from hyperbolic to suggest that Bloomberg is attempting to buy the presidency from an all-too-eager political media apparatus.

It’s hard­ly unortho­dox for a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to devote mil­lions of dol­lars to adver­tis­ing. His­tor­i­cal­ly, major can­di­dates have spent rough­ly com­pa­ra­ble amounts — regard­less of the sources of their dona­tions — gen­er­at­ing a rel­a­tive­ly lev­el play­ing field in finan­cial terms. In 2016, for exam­ple, Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign spent a report­ed $73.7 mil­lion on TV ads, while Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Hillary Clin­ton spent $62.6 mil­lion. Repub­li­can can­di­dates Mar­co Rubio and Jeb Bush spent $72.7 mil­lion and $66.9 mil­lion respectively.

Yet these num­bers are a mere sliv­er of Bloomberg’s totals. In fact, Bloomberg’s expen­di­tures aren’t just astro­nom­i­cal; they’re unprece­dent­ed, amount­ing to what many crit­ics have called an act of grand-scale bribery in pur­suit of the world’s most pow­er­ful polit­i­cal position.

Bloomberg for­mal­ly entered the pres­i­den­tial race com­par­a­tive­ly late, in Novem­ber of 2019. Since then, he has eschewed the tra­di­tion­al cam­paign­ing meth­ods used by oppo­nents Bernie Sanders, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar, such as town halls in the ear­li­est pri­ma­ry states like Iowa, New Hamp­shire and Neva­da, rely­ing instead on a colos­sal adver­tis­ing bud­get. As part of that strat­e­gy, Bloomberg report­ed­ly plans to con­cen­trate on high­ly pop­u­lous Super Tues­day states like Cal­i­for­nia and Texas; Flori­da, whose pri­maries are on March 17; and New York and Penn­syl­va­nia, which hold pri­maries on April 28.

Cur­rent­ly, a hefty por­tion of Bloomberg’s ad spend­ing is devot­ed to TV com­mer­cials in prepa­ra­tion for Super Tues­day on March 3, when more than one-third of the elec­torate is expect­ed to vote. Accord­ing to data from FiveThir­tyEight, the cam­paign has pro­duced at least 39 com­mer­cials, cost­ing more than $300 mil­lion as of Feb­ru­ary 14. FiveThir­tyEight dis­plays 10 ads, most of which have aired hun­dreds of times in Texas, Cal­i­for­nia and Flori­da. For com­par­i­son, Tom Stey­er, anoth­er bil­lion­aire in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic race and the sec­ond-high­est ad buy­er, has spent an esti­mat­ed $133 mil­lion on com­mer­cials as of Feb­ru­ary 14.

Addi­tion­al­ly, Bloomberg has far out­paced his oppo­nents in dig­i­tal ad expen­di­tures. The cam­paign has spent at least $42 mil­lion on more than 90,000 ads, accord­ing to its lat­est dis­clo­sures. Bloomberg’s Face­book adver­tis­ing has accel­er­at­ed pre­cip­i­tous­ly; the campaign’s dai­ly Face­book ad expens­es are now over $1.3 mil­lion. Bloomberg’s spend­ing reached its great­est heights in the largest states: From Novem­ber 14 to Feb­ru­ary 11, the cam­paign spent north of $4.2 mil­lion, $5.5 mil­lion and $13.4 mil­lion in Texas, Cal­i­for­nia and Flori­da respec­tive­ly. Again, Stey­er is a dis­tant sec­ond, hov­er­ing around $100,000 per day. As of Feb­ru­ary 14, Sanders’ one-day expen­di­ture fol­lowed at approx­i­mate­ly $70,800; Buttigieg at $42,600; War­ren at $26,000; Klobuchar at $13,800 and Biden at $7,600.

Mean­while, as of mid-Feb­ru­ary, Bloomberg ranked first among polit­i­cal ad buy­ers on Google, with a total of 33,869 ads cost­ing near­ly $37 mil­lion. Sim­i­lar to his TV and Face­book ads, Bloomberg’s Google ads appear to be court­ing the Super Tues­day vote. While expen­di­tures peaked in mid-Jan­u­ary, ad spends were again on the rise mov­ing into Feb­ru­ary. This con­sid­er­ably sur­pass­es Steyer’s cam­paign, the sec­ond-high­est-spend­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paign on Google, which has bought over $7 mil­lion worth of adver­tis­ing, as well as the cam­paigns of Buttigieg ($6.36 mil­lion), Sanders ($5.3 mil­lion), War­ren ($4.27 mil­lion), Biden ($1.64 mil­lion) and Klobuchar ($1.6 million).

The ad blitz appears to have been chill­ing­ly effec­tive, throw­ing into sharp relief the immense influ­ence the super-wealthy wield in U.S. pol­i­tics. Since the ads began, Bloomberg’s poll num­bers have soared. Accord­ing to Real­Clear­Pol­i­tics, Bloomberg’s polling aver­age was 4.9% as of Decem­ber 24; as of Jan­u­ary 23, it had climbed to 7.7%. In a Feb­ru­ary 10 Quin­nip­i­ac nation­al poll of Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates, Bloomberg placed third, at 15%. A day lat­er, a Morn­ing Con­sult poll showed the can­di­date had risen to 17%.

Bloomberg’s ad flur­ry has also been a boon to the broad­cast indus­try. CNBC report­ed that Bloomberg’s spend­ing has cre­at­ed a wind­fall for local TV broad­cast­ers.” The report elab­o­rat­ed: Shares of pub­licly trad­ed com­pa­nies that own local broad­cast­ers have also risen a wel­come sur­prise for an indus­try that’s being erod­ed by dig­i­tal media. Shares of Nexs­tar Media Group, the largest of the local broad­cast­ing com­pa­nies, are up over 20% since news of Bloomberg’s run broke in late Novem­ber. Shares of Gray Tele­vi­sion are up about 10%.”

Oth­er broad­cast cor­po­ra­tions have con­firmed Bloomberg’s effect on their prof­its. Accord­ing to The Inter­cept, Christo­pher Rip­ley, pres­i­dent and CEO of Sin­clair Media Group, which owns over 190 tele­vi­sion sta­tions through­out the Unit­ed States, said the amount of fundrais­ing that’s hap­pened through this year has bro­ken all records.” He added that Sin­clair is already ben­e­fit­ing tremen­dous­ly from that and the entrance of play­ers like Bloomberg.” In addi­tion, Patrick McCreery, an exec­u­tive of media firm Mered­ith Cor­po­ra­tion, said, Bloomberg is cer­tain­ly hav­ing an impact across most of our foot­print.” This means that media chan­nels — in addi­tion to Bloomberg L.P., the mass media com­pa­ny Bloomberg owns — have an incen­tive to pro­long Bloomberg’s can­di­da­cy in a bla­tant con­flict of interest.

Bloomberg’s abil­i­ty to spend with such aban­don stems from his per­son­al wealth, which is the sole source of his cam­paign fund­ing. The bil­lion­aire — a for­mer Repub­li­can whose ide­ol­o­gy has man­i­fest­ed in rank racism, trans­pho­bia, misog­y­ny and ani­mus toward the poor—touts this donor-free mod­el as proof of his finan­cial and ide­o­log­i­cal inde­pen­dence from spe­cial inter­ests.” But his strat­e­gy to fund his own can­di­da­cy is no sign of virtue; Bloomberg has a record of lever­ag­ing his mon­strous wealth into polit­i­cal viability.

On account of his self-fund­ing, Bloomberg didn’t qual­i­fy for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial debates in Novem­ber, Decem­ber, Jan­u­ary and ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, which required par­tic­i­pants to reach a cer­tain thresh­old of dona­tions. Yet, last Jan­u­ary, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Com­mit­tee sus­pi­cious­ly elim­i­nat­ed the fundrais­ing cri­te­ria for the next debate on Feb­ru­ary 19, replac­ing it with a min­i­mum polling require­ment of 10 per­cent in four polls released from Jan­u­ary 15 to Feb­ru­ary 18, or 12 per­cent in two polls con­duct­ed in Neva­da or South Car­oli­na — a bench­mark Bloomberg has met, thanks entire­ly to his plu­to­crat­ic status. 

This dove­tails with Bloomberg’s his­to­ry of pur­chas­ing polit­i­cal alliances. Through a series of so-called phil­an­thropic munic­i­pal ini­tia­tives, includ­ing grants and oth­er mon­e­tary sup­port pack­ages,” Bloomberg has ingra­ti­at­ed him­self with cur­rent and for­mer may­ors through­out the coun­try, gar­ner­ing endorse­ments from at least two dozen offi­cials, includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, D.C. May­or Muriel Bows­er; San Fran­cis­co May­or Lon­don Breed; and for­mer Flint, Michi­gan May­or Karen Weaver. Accord­ing to the New York Times, at least four of his endorsers received fund­ing from Bloomberg worth a total of near­ly $10 mil­lion.” Accom­pa­ny­ing the endorse­ments, appro­pri­ate­ly enough, is an out­pour of uncrit­i­cal media cov­er­age.

It’s far from hyper­bol­ic to sug­gest that Bloomberg is attempt­ing to buy the pres­i­den­cy from an all-too-eager polit­i­cal media appa­ra­tus. If recent devel­op­ments are any indi­ca­tion, it’s like­ly that Bloomberg’s vis­i­bil­i­ty will only grow for the fore­see­able future. As that hap­pens — if indeed it does — it will be imper­a­tive to ques­tion why it was ever allowed.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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