The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did Mike Bloomberg waste $500 million running for president? We’re about to find out.

Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg speaks during a rally in San Antonio on Sunday. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

On the craps table of this campaign, there’s a $500 million chip sitting on “Super Tuesday.” The bettor’s name is mike — small “m,” according to the visual design of his campaign, like he’s your modest neighbor from the split-level down the block instead of a titan of media and finance with estates in Bermuda and Southampton.

That’s Bloomberg. Mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013. Democrat, then Republican, then independent, then Democrat. Purveyor of fancy data terminals. Ninth-richest person in the world. A few months ago Bloomberg saw a moribund field of candidates and thought he could vault his way to the nomination through a delegate grab on Super Tuesday.

So now it’s mike, responsible presidential candidate, asking for the car keys as the nation stumbles around.

Is he trying to save the party, or accidentally sabotaging it? Is “mike” just a proxy for Bloomberg as he tries to buy the presidency?

“My first answer to that all the time is: What’s the right price to save democracy from Donald Trump?” said Tim O’Brien, a senior adviser to mike, at a Bloomberg house party in McLean, Va., Thursday night. There, Northern Virginians sipped Chianti and canned Perrier and whispered about Joe Biden as if he were an uncle in hospice care (this was 48 hours before his defibrillation in South Carolina). They shuddered at the thought of Bernie Sanders, democratic socialist, for his perceived radicalism and dismissed Elizabeth Warren, capitalist reformer, for her vendetta against mike.

What’s a democracy worth? A year ago, before mike arrived on the scene, Bloomberg pledged a half billion to vanquishing Trump. In Virginia, over the past three years, he spent $3.5 million to help flip the statehouse to Democrats, whose gun-control advocates now speak of him with reverence. So far this year, Bloomberg has spent $50 million to pepper online platforms with advertising. Now, mike is in your Facebook feed. He’s in your Google search results. Every time you glance at the television, he’s there. The 2020 presidential candidates have spent $26 million on TV ads in Texas alone; 80 percent of that was for mike, according to Advertising Analytics. One ad cost $4.3 million all by itself, and said that mike has “la fuerza para enfrentar a Trump” (the strength to face Trump).

He’s created an entire economy. mike’s campaign officially began 13 weeks ago, but already Bloomberg has spent more on his campaign than the Texas city of Arlington (population: 400,000) has in its annual budget. The least senior members of his staff of 2,000 make $6,000 a month (nearly twice their counterparts’ wages on Team Warren and Team Sanders). He has deployed an army of meme makers, enlisted mural artists to transform campaign spaces and hired at least one comedian to secretly punch up his speeches. This past weekend he zoomed to Super Tuesday states in private jets to headline campaign events with free booze and barbecue.

He knows money might not buy him love, but maybe it can buy him like.

“He’s the best person to win,” said Rennea Henn, 71, standing in a sea of “I LIKE MIKE” signs at a rally at a former airfield in San Antonio Sunday night. She doesn’t like Sanders and that “gimme gimme” mentality she believes he instills in the kids. She would happily vote for Biden, but even after the former vice president’s boffo victory in South Carolina, she is concerned about his unevenness. “He said he had four women he wanted to pick for VP, and he couldn’t even remember their names,” Henn said.

What did Mike Bloomberg do with his billions before running for president?

Rewind to Friday, when mike hopscotched eastward across Tennessee in private jets: He rallied 1,000 people in downtown Memphis, where a handful of protesters hoisted signs that said “Oligarch,” “What is your price?” and “Our Democracy is not for sale.” At a distillery in Clarksville, near the Kentucky border, mike corked a barrel of bourbon in front of a friendly crowd, while a couple of dozen protesters outside carried Trump-Pence flags and signs like “Mini Mike take a hike.”

“I won’t talk until the cows come home,” mike said inside, pausing for laughter that didn’t come. Then: “They told me that would work in Arkansas.” (He’d been in Arkansas the previous day.)

mike knows he can’t land a joke. mike knows that he’s not charismatic. mike knows that the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy got out of control when Bloomberg was mayor, and mike is sorry about that. But he would like you know that he’s good in a crisis, that’s he a “pragmatic problem-solver,” that he can bedevil Trump while consolidating support to defeat him.

Bloomberg’s millions have helped solve at least one problem, which has to do with mike’s age. When 38-year-old Pete Buttigieg suspended his campaign Sunday night — thereby stepping on mike’s paid prime-time “address” on the coronavirus — the top of the field got hopelessly geriatric, with Warren as spring chicken at age 70. At 78, mike is older than Biden by nine months, and younger than Sanders by five, but Bloomberg’s $500 million investment has bestowed mike with the appearance of vigor, steadiness and omnipresence. It has threatened to render sentimental and obsolete the retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. Americans shop online and buy what’s on TV, and that’s where mike is meeting them. He never looks tired.

It has also bought a ground game for the virtual candidate.

The Post spoke with Tennessee voters on March 2 about former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg's $500-million-dollar campaign. (Video: Jada Yuan/The Washington Post, Photo: Jada Yuan/The Washington Post)

“We’ve built the biggest infrastructure that Texas has ever seen,” said Ashlea Turner, mike’s state director. On the ground in Texas he’s got 19 field offices and 180 paid staffers, including Amanda Salas, 33, who grew up conservative, supported John McCain in 2008, Bernie Sanders in 2016, and now has settled in the middle with mike.

“I gotta look at what people in my electorate are looking at: solid Democrat but pretty conservative,” said Salas, while door-knocking Saturday in a Hispanic neighborhood of San Antonio.

The mike campaign has seven full-time staffers in the remote islands of American Samoa, according to CNN, as part of a play to lock down the U.S. territory’s six delegates.

Tennesseans, who vote Tuesday, are shocked to be lavished with attention by a Democratic candidate at this stage. mike has seven offices in Tennessee, including ones in Jackson and Johnson City, in largely rural areas on either side of the state that rarely see this kind of action from a presidential candidate.

Ernest Brooks, a councilman from the city of Jackson in West Tennessee, accepted Bloomberg’s apology for stop-and-frisk and praised his economic initiatives for black Americans.

“It’s been many, many presidential cycles” since a candidate set up an office in his county, said Brooks, a paid surrogate. “Decades.”

On Friday in Blountville, near the Virginia border, mike spoke in a Trumpian setting: an airplane hangar with a gargantuan American flag behind him. Included in the buffet of pulled pork and casserole were two vats of banana pudding so big that the candidate could’ve bathed in them. There were a couple MAGA hats in the crowd of 350. A man under one of them was named Craig Widner.

“I don’t like hardly any of what Mike Bloomberg stands for,” said Widner, who owns an insurance business, “but I do respect that he had the guts to show up in East Tennessee for an event that’s probably not gonna work out well for him.”

The main goal was not to win outright but to walk away with delegates, and to be prepared for a brokered national convention in Milwaukee in July. Last week, popular distaste with this strategy manifested in spray paint (“Eat the Rich”) on the campaign office in Johnson City, Tenn.

“When people make comments that he’s buying the election, I’m very put off by that,” said regional field organizer Kristi Carr. “Because all I have is awe that a candidate would invest their own money in my home state and my home region that has never had that kind of investment before.”

Out in Kingsport, mike’s sole canvasser Friday was a 16-year-old named Carrson Everett. He’s the founder of his high school’s club for Democrats (membership: 15) and president of the county’s society for young Democrats (membership: five). Carrson was originally for Bernie Sanders, but was turned off by his supporters and liked what he heard at the opening ceremony for mike’s office in Johnson City. Carrson can’t vote, but he can knock on doors.

“I get irritated with Democrats who are not in red areas because I think they feel like, ‘Well, I just don’t need to do anything,’ ” he said while canvassing in Kingsport. “And I’m like, ‘We are working our butts off out here!’ ”

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Speaking of red areas, did you know mike’s favorite color is maroon? You would if you’d went to his “women for mike” rally Saturday morning at a hotel ballroom in McLean, Va. Bloomberg trivia looped on flat-screen TVs as supporters feasted on croissants, coffee and speared cantaloupe. Arlington resident Twana Barber was undecided until last week, when she was persuaded by mike’s work on gun violence and the endorsement of a former mayor of Alexandria. As for stop-and-frisk and mike’s history of sexist comments, Barber said she is a Christian who believes in forgiveness and second chances.

“We’ve all had a past, and we’ve all said things that we wish we could take back,” said Barber, who works in public relations. “I want to see what he’s going to do for us going forward. And sometimes that ugly past makes us better human beings.”

mike was introduced by a dozen women who have been working for Bloomberg LP for years. He took the stage to U2’s “Beautiful Day” and said: “Good morning, women for mike. I am mike for women. Nice to meet you.”

He talked about getting “it” done, and getting “things” done. He talked about decency, honesty and sanity. He talked about having the resources to defeat Trump.

The price of a democracy — whether one intends to save it or merely acquire a controlling interest — cannot be estimated easily. There are some things money can’t buy, they say.

“I know he’s done all these commercials on what he’s doing for black businesses and how he’s promoted women,” said Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), a Biden supporter who has taken potshots at Bloomberg on Twitter, “but that doesn’t relieve the angst, especially among younger voters.”

Enthusiasm. Fervor. Youthful idealism. Bernie Sanders supporters have it, and it’s not for sale. One poll of Virginia, which also votes Tuesday, had mike tied for first with Sanders earlier this month; a more recent poll placed him third, with Biden at the top. mike was polling third in Texas, which had the largest population increase of any state in the country from 2018 to 2019. It’s diverse, and getting more so: Last year for every new white resident, there were nine new Hispanic residents — a demographic mike has been courting. The state is young and getting younger (median age 34). Each year it inches toward becoming a blue state, and mike thinks he can finally wrest it away from Republicans.

In Texas, on the final weekend before Super Tuesday, the campaign decided that San Antonio should be home to one of their biggest pushes in the state. On Saturday morning, marine biologist Paige Newman, 55, showed up to Bloomberg HQ and quickly realized that she was the only person not being paid to be there. This was the first time Newman had ever volunteered for a campaign. She wants Trump out and thinks that mike is the most credible candidate on climate change. His candidacy is not a high-stakes gamble, Newman believes. It’s a smart bet.

She walked down Coyote Hill Road and Mustang Ridge, in the northeast suburbs of San Antonio, her phone open to mike’s canvassing app. In one driveway was a man with a long brown beard, sleeves of tattoos and a shirt that read: “So far this is the oldest I’ve ever been.” Newman approached.

“Nope, nope, nope,” said Atticus McCoy, 37. America has a rich guy in the White House, he said. “We don’t need another.”

He said he prefers the candidate who believes that billionaires — including Bloomberg, and therefore “mike” — should not exist.

“I like Bernie,” McCoy told Newman, “but he’s never going to win.”

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