It was a show of force — four states in less than 17 hours on Wednesday, each event meticulously produced for local press, with separate rented motorcades and a button-down advance staff that choreographed his movements like a ballet. No other presidential candidate in the Democratic field would have tried to pull this off in January.
As the cameras shuttered before the purple grow lights of an urban farm, he asked whether anyone knew the difference between a good salesman and a great one. The good salesman, he explained, can face rejection at one door and move on to the next just as convinced he will make the sale.
“The great salesman knocks on the same door,” he said with a sly smile.
The thing that makes Bloomberg different is that he can knock on all doors at once. Bloomberg is running aggressively to win the Democratic nomination, but he is simultaneously building out a general election machine to defeat President Trump, with a new structure — data, field organizing, advertising and policy — that aims to elect Democrats up and down the ballot even if the party’s voters reject the former New York mayor this spring.
The party he is moving to transform, which he only rejoined in October, has become little more than a bystander to his ambition. With more than 800 employees, $200 million in ad spending so far and a fully catered Times Square office that houses hundreds of employees, “Mike Bloomberg 2020, Inc.” does not resemble a primary campaign in any traditional sense. It is an experiment in what happens to democracy when a single faction operates without economic constraints.
While most presidential efforts start early and poor, the Bloomberg project exists in an inverted dimension, a fact that has caught the attention of Trump, who spent years closely tracking Bloomberg’s political career in New York. The president has been monitoring Bloomberg’s campaign, impressed by his extraordinary spending and fearful of his potential rise, according to Trump confidants with whom the president has discussed Bloomberg. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
Bloomberg’s aides, in turn, have delighted in trying to find ways to get Trump’s attention and increase his anxiety, such as the recent purchase of an $11 million Super Bowl ad that will run against a similar spot purchased by Trump’s campaign. When Trump tweeted an attack on Bloomberg on Monday, the former mayor’s team was delighted.
“Glad to see you’re watching our ads,” Bloomberg tweeted in response.
The extravagance is part of the message, an attempt to demonstrate his competence and show that he can manage something big with good intentions.
“We also want people to know that we are building a juggernaut pointed at Donald Trump and the Republican Party,” said Tim O’Brien, a senior adviser to the campaign who has been taking the message to state parties around the country. “One of Mike’s goals is to make a machine that lasts. This idea that he wants to do a vanity run or is just buying exposure is belied by that.”
To begin with, that means building a fully staffed general election campaign in January to win primary contests in March, with a suite of high-profile recruits on the payroll, including former top executives for Facebook, Foursquare and GroupM, the world’s largest advertising media company by billings. No one at headquarters knows what he will ultimately choose to spend, but they operate for the moment without budgets, putting the 12th-richest person on the planet on a path to spend $1 billion or more.
He wants Democrats to know he is happy to spread the money around. During a swing through Texas on Saturday, when his campaign staged more than 150 events in 27 states in a show of organizing prowess, he cast himself as a potential benefactor and mentor for all state and local party organizations.
“I think you look at each,” Bloomberg said, when asked whether he would boost them. “You look to see how well they’re run, and if you tried to help, that you’d be able to help. That’s number one. And number two would be that your money would be used efficiently. And it’s not just money. We can bring some advice.”
Whether he wins or loses the nomination, the ubiquitous television and digital ads he is running have been crafted as the opening exchange in a conversation about Trump’s failures that will continue through November.
“I am looking forward to making a multi-month-long case to voters that will end on Election Day with his defeat,” says Howard Wolfson, a top adviser overseeing the paid media efforts.
New health-care spots that began airing Monday focus nearly as much on attacking Trump as introducing Bloomberg. “America is sick of Donald Trump, and America is getting sicker,” begins one ad voice-over, as the screen shows unflattering photos of the president. “There are 1 million more uninsured Americans every year under Trump.”
In a sign of how closely Trump is monitoring Bloomberg’s spots, the president responded Monday to a new ad that denounced Trump for supporting a Justice Department lawsuit to overturn protections for people with preexisting conditions.
“Mini Mike Bloomberg is spending a lot of money on False Advertising,” Trump wrote, in a tweet that was itself misleading. “I was the person who saved Pre-Existing Conditions in your Healthcare.”
(Trump argues that he will urge Congress to reinstate the protections if he succeeds in court at removing them.)
Bloomberg’s data operation, cryptically called Hawkfish, aims to incorporate expensive demographic and targeting data, parts of which can later be fed back into the party’s databases or repurposed for the broader fight against Trump and Republicans. The fact that he is a candidate gives him greater access to party data than he would otherwise have, and as a candidate, he also benefits from lower television ad rates in swing states before their primary contests than he would if he simply advertised against Trump as a regular citizen.
The massive campaign staffs he has been bringing on in swing states — 60 in Arizona and more than 80 in North Carolina, for example, at a time when most candidates are focused in Iowa — have been promised jobs through the July convention or November election, long after his primary campaign closes up shop.
On the walls of the campaign headquarters in Manhattan, on a floor previously occupied by the New York Times, two digital countdown clocks hang in pairs. One ticks to Super Tuesday, March 3, when Bloomberg hopes to pick up delegates in 14 states after declining to campaign in the first four contests. The other aims at the general election in November.
“Either it is going to be the best primary campaign in American history, or the greatest IE that has ever been created,” said campaign manager Kevin Sheekey, using the political lingo for an independent expenditure campaign, the super PAC-type efforts that wealthy interests use to influence elections.
All parts of any campaign that have been run before — an aggressive constituency operation, a surrogate team, a Spanish-language effort, local media teams in dozens of states so far — have been built out. Top aides have been telling Bloomberg to give his cellphone number to superdelegates whose support could play a decisive role in a contested convention.
His campaign is turning out a steady stream of campaign swag — sold at cost, not to raise money — in the hopes of a coming demand for “I LIKE MIKE” and “Democracy is not a witch hunt” T-shirts.
His own social set has been taken care of, as well. Even though Bloomberg will not accept campaign contributions, part of his political operation, called Committee for Mike, is courting Wall Street executives, New York philanthropists and other local leaders with special events and weekly invite-only conference calls. The request is influence.
“Amplify our message by acting as validators in the media, within your professional network, and other spheres,” the campaign wrote in a recent email to the group, after Bloomberg invited dozens to a campaign breakfast briefing at one of his Upper East Side buildings.
Despite all the spending, his primary hopes depend largely on factors well beyond his control. If former vice president Joe Biden performs well in the early states, Bloomberg’s moderate appeal will likely be overshadowed. But in the case of a stumble, or a divided field, Bloomberg could position himself as a party broker with a minority of delegates, or as a moderate unity candidate, aiming to bring together the party.
On the campaign trail, much of what he is doing in the meantime is defiant in its vague appeal. An engineer by nature who likes to talk about delegating authority, he is focused on process and efficient message delivery. Despite 12 years as mayor, he is still learning to emote and talk with his hands. His campaign signs have the same blue-on-blue design used by the 2012 Obama campaign, and his entrance song at events, lifted from John F. Kerry’s acceptance speech at the 2004 convention, is U2’s “Beautiful Day.”
His policy, though sometimes nuanced on paper, is uncomplicated in presentation, leaning heavily on phrases known to move focus groups.
“My pitch, I guess,” he told more than 500 potential supporters in Ohio on Wednesday, reading from notes, “is if you want health insurance for everyone, if you want to combat inequality with fairer taxes and better jobs, if you want to share my belief in opportunity for all, if you support a commitment to quality education in this country for everybody, if you want to clean out the White House, clean out the Oval Office, if you want to get things done, join Team Bloomberg.”
At an earlier event in Chicago, only a couple hundred showed up, and some of them seemed less than convinced. One group of a half-dozen younger attendees in the audience said they found out about the event through their employer, which one young woman said she was “scared” to identify.
But a few feet away, fear of a different sort had produced real support. “We are really scared,” said Brenda Gordon, a teacher of dentistry from Chicago, speaking of Trump. She said she came to the event after signing up for the email list for a man she believed could win, whom she called “my exception to the old white man rule.”
“He is everything Trump wishes he was,” she said. “He is a real billionaire.”
As Bloomberg finished his remarks in Akron, and prepared to travel back to Queens, where his day had begun, he admitted that he was not looking forward to the fourth flight.
But he also wanted the crowd to know that he is just getting started.
“Tomorrow, it starts again,” he said. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
David Weigel, Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.