By plowing half a billion dollars into his campaign, the media tycoon became the biggest self-spending candidate in U.S. history in just three months. If you watched TV, listened to the radio or used the Internet at some point since December, it felt nearly impossible to miss a glitzy Bloomberg campaign ad.
Bloomberg dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday and endorsed Joe Biden. As one of the most influential political donors of the past decade, the former New York mayor plans to spend heavily to defeat President Trump in November.
Here are answers to some questions to help us understand the half-billion dollars that fueled his short-lived candidacy.
Let’s be real. Does money even matter?
It does! But money can get you only so far, even when you have seemingly unlimited amounts of it. And you can still go far when you don’t have a lot of money (see: Biden’s commanding delegate gains on Super Tuesday, despite being outspent by every major opponent).
Money certainly played a role in Bloomberg’s candidacy, said Michael Malbin, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research group. Money buys you communications, data, polling and staff, and Bloomberg had plenty of all that. The rapid spending broadened his name recognition outside of his New York constituency, and Bloomberg actually competed and won some delegates on Super Tuesday, Malbin said. And Bloomberg’s torrent of anti-Trump ads gave Democrats an edge.
“Let’s not too quickly dismiss this as having no effect. It had an effect, more so than many other self-funded candidates,” Malbin said. “Bottom line, he did much better than many governors in this race. He lasted longer. He got votes on Super Tuesday. He qualified for some delegates.”
Bloomberg’s massive spending gave experts a rare opportunity to test the effects of what basically became uncontested presidential advertising. And Super Tuesday results confirmed: Campaign advertising matters at the margins.
“It is a very nice illustration for the public and other people who thought that he might be able to buy his way through the election,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes political advertising.
The limitations of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s fundraising and donor base became clear on Tuesday, too. Despite being the most successful fundraiser (other than the billionaires) in the Democratic race with the largest online grass-roots donor base, Sanders was trailing Biden’s delegate count as of Wednesday afternoon.
Have I seen the last of Bloomberg ads?
Far from it. Bloomberg has said he would spend whatever it takes to defeat Trump and has pledged to spend as much as $1 billion.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s senior adviser, Tim O’Brien, said Bloomberg will put his resources “in the broadest way possible behind Joe Biden’s candidacy.” He added, “We have long-term leases and long-term contracts with the team, and the intention was always to put this big machine we have built behind whoever the nominee is.”
What happens to the leftover cash in Bloomberg’s campaign account?
Bloomberg had $55 million in cash in his campaign account as of Feb. 1, the most recent data available. But unlike other candidates who raise money from donors, Bloomberg faces very few restrictions on how he can spend the money in his campaign account — because it’s his own money.
Candidates can run independent ad campaigns in support of or in opposition to other candidates, including their rivals. So that means Bloomberg can use the rest of his campaign funds to run ads with whatever message he chooses, like supporting Biden or attacking Trump.
Bloomberg already purchased $7 million in ads to run over two days in post-Super Tuesday states, and he can now pivot to use those ad slots to help Biden or attack Trump.
While candidates face certain spending restrictions on their donors’ money after they drop out of a race, Bloomberg can simply give the money back to himself. He can use unlimited amounts of his personal funds to run ads or can donate money to super PACs, such as the pro-Biden group Unite the Country, or his own super PAC, Independence USA.
It’s worth noting that the Federal Election Commission, the regulatory agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws, lacks a quorum and can’t enforce the law. Even if any concerns or issues arise this election season, the FEC would not make a legal decision until years after its quorum is restored.
Is Bloomberg’s historic spending a result of the 2010 Citizens United case?
Those who wish to see less money in politics frequently bemoan the landmark 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, which helped pave the way for the modern era of big-money politics and the unlimited amounts of money raised and spent through super PACs and nonprofits that do not disclose donors.
Bloomberg’s influence as a political donor ballooned as he poured money into super PACs over the past decade, and he is one of the top 10 super PAC donors to date.
But Bloomberg can spend unlimited money to run ads as an individual, even without a super PAC or a campaign committee. That was made possible through a seminal 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, that knocked down limits on independent expenditures, which the court determined were a form of direct personal expression.
“Far before Citizens United, a candidate had the right to spend his own money to promote his candidacy,” said Bradley Smith, former Republican chairman of the FEC. “He could keep spending his own money as independent expenditures.”