The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mike Bloomberg’s money buys him a very different kind of campaign. And it’s a big one.

Democratic presidential candidate and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg waits to speak at an event on gun safety on Dec. 5 in Aurora, Colo. (Michael Ciaglo/AFP/Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, Ga. — After two weeks in the presidential race, Mike Bloomberg now employs one of the largest campaign staff rosters, has spent more money on ads than all the top-polling Democrats combined and is simultaneously building out ground operations in 27 states.

But when the former New York mayor showed up to get the endorsement of Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. on Friday, only two of the 10 chairs initially placed before the lectern were occupied. When Bloomberg joked about his college years, saying he “was one of the students who made the top half of the class possible,” he was met by silence.

“You’re supposed to laugh at that, folks,” Bloomberg said to a room at the city’s African American history museum filled mostly with staff and media.

For a normal presidential campaign, such moments would be a worrying sign, a potentially viral metaphor for a struggling effort. But with the Bloomberg campaign, it is not at all clear what established rules apply, if any. Everything he is doing is so unlike what has been done for decades that it is difficult to decipher how voters will react.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained why he chose Norfolk, Va. as his first campaign event as a presidential candidate on Nov. 25. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rather than focus on the early states, he is campaigning for votes deep in the 2020 calendar, in places where voters are less tuned in to the nominating process. Rather than worry about a budget, he has put no limit on the money he is prepared to spend. Rather than run in a Democratic primary by appealing to ideological die-hards or partisan flag bearers, he describes himself as “basically nonpartisan.”

Although far outside the box, the effort is not easily dismissed. As a former three-term New York mayor, he comes to the race with more executive governing experience and has represented more voters than most of his competitors, as well as a philanthropic record he has emphasized in campaign ads while pushing several core liberal priorities, including increased gun regulation and the reduction of carbon pollution. His campaign message is focused on his own competence and electability.

Rival campaigns worry about the creeping possibility that he finds a way to catch fire if the early states deliver no clear front-runner, or that he wins enough delegates to deny anyone a majority, granting him a brokering role in choosing the nominee before the convention. His ability to dominate airwaves could also raise advertising rates for everyone else.

His campaign’s senior staff, who did not know a month ago that they would be building a nine-figure operation, now projects that he will soon register significantly in national polls and potentially change the way people think about the nominating contest.

“The theory of the case is that we are running a national campaign,” said Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey. “From my point of view, no one has ever run a national primary campaign since Kennedy in 1960.”

Already, there are hundreds of staff members working remotely or out of the temporary campaign headquarters in one of Bloomberg’s Beaux-Arts limestone mansions on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where the blinds rise and fall with time of day, the food is free and a selection of his museum-quality art collection is on display.

The campaign has been offering field organizers salaries of $6,000 a month, a 70 percent premium from the going rate of $3,500 paid by the campaigns of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It has picked up key hires such as Dan Kanninen, a former aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in 2016 and to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during his successful 2008 campaign; former Obama organizer Mitch Stewart; Obama’s former Ohio strategist Aaron Pickrell; and Gary Briggs, a former top marketing executive for Facebook and Google.

The money they have been sending out the door for advertising is record-setting. Since his campaign launch on Nov. 24, Bloomberg has spent or reserved about $60 million in television and radio ads, with no sign of slowing down. Taken together, the top four polling Democrats in the race — former vice president Joe Biden; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sanders and Warren — have spent about $28 million on similar ads all year.

He has also purchased $4.6 million of Google ads, from YouTube spots that run alongside video game streamers to classic search promotions. That is more than any other Democratic campaign has spent over the full year, according to the company. On Facebook, his spending over the past week ran at more than $170,000 a day, 2½ times the level of President Trump’s reelection campaign and about three times more than Tom Steyer, the other billionaire Democrat seeking the nomination. All of his digital ads are focused on increasing his support and recruiting staff, rather than the fundraising that occupies other campaigns.

Before he announced in March that he would not run for president, Bloomberg, 77, had drawn up plans for a more traditional campaign. When he entered in November, he decided to skip the first four contests, which tend to pick presidential nominees by showing early momentum and redirecting the national focus.

Instead, his operation is aimed at the 25 states that will award nearly two-thirds of the available convention delegates over a 15-day period that begins March 3. The campaign plans to employ hundreds of field staff in those states, plus Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which vote later but are expected to be key swing states in the general election.

“It is a massive undertaking,” said Kanninen, who has come on to run Bloomberg’s state strategy. “I think it is safe to say from a size-of-the-map perspective and the number of contests that we will be competing in, it is something no one has ever tried to do before.”

One of the reasons no one has ever tried it is that no one has ever been able to afford it. But Bloomberg’s net worth is estimated at around $55 billion by Forbes — roughly 565,000 times the median American household. Even if he spends $2.7 billion on media, the total amount the firm Advertising Analytics expected to be expended by all candidates running for president this cycle, he will have only relinquished about a twentieth of his funds.

The carpet-bombing ad approach has yet to register much in the polls, where he languishes in the low single digits, slightly above the rest of the second tier candidates. But his advisers say they are not worried that they will be able to breach the 15-percent threshold required by party rules to gain delegates.

“We will be viable,” Sheekey said. “The next time you see a national poll you will see the results.”

Rival Democratic strategists remain skeptical of the effort, as they focus on finding a way for their candidates to catch fire in the early states. Bloomberg’s campaign skills are rusty, and he has already encountered some bumps.

In an interview on Thursday with “CBS This Morning,” Bloomberg praised Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is black, by calling him “well spoken,” prompting Booker to object and Bloomberg to acknowledge that he could have chosen his words better. Bloomberg also said falsely that had not been asked about his support for stop-and-frisk policing before he reversed himself on the issue last month. On Friday, he said he “quite honestly didn’t remember” an instance in January when the issue was raised with him.

“You can buy a certain amount of people who are undecided in polls,” said a top adviser to a rival candidate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal campaign thinking. “Now, when you are in the ballot box or in the caucus site, it’s a different thing altogether.”

The Trump campaign, by contrast, has chosen to attack Bloomberg early, with Trump tweeting about “Mini Mike Bloomberg” and announcing he would bar reporters for Bloomberg’s eponymous news organization from his campaign events. (The top editor of Bloomberg News has said the organization will continue to cover the presidential race, while refraining from investigating Bloomberg or his Democratic rivals.)

The immediate threat to Trump has less to do with Bloomberg winning the nomination than with his prolific spending hurting the president in the swing states where the general election will be decided. Through the Bloomberg campaign and a separate anti-Trump digital effort he is funding, a campaign adviser said, Bloomberg has already spent more than $8.3 million in television and digital ads in six core swing states: Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

Even campaign spots focused on Bloomberg’s biography include a negative reference to the sitting president. The Trump campaign declined a request for comment.

Bloomberg initially decided not to run for president largely because of Biden’s apparent strength in the weeks after he entered the race, and Bloomberg’s fear that they would split the moderate vote. But since then, Bloomberg, who has always cast himself as a competent manager able to build and run large organizations, decided that Biden and the rest of the field were not up for the job of beating Trump.

“When I took a look at what was happening and things were getting worse — and I didn't see others that I thought could beat Donald Trump — I said, ‘Shame on me if I didn't have the courage to stand up and at least try,’ ” Bloomberg said in Augusta.

Bloomberg has a long history of shifting tack with ease. He supported two-term limits for New York’s mayor before he successfully changed the law to win a third term, and then supported reimposing two-term limits. He announced he would not return to running his company, Bloomberg LLC, after leaving City Hall, before doing just that.

Bloomberg’s decision to reverse himself again to join the presidential contest came as a surprise to even his closest political advisers. They presented Bloomberg with new polling in early November, shortly after the New York Times released surveys that showed Trump competitive — or defeating Democrats — in key battleground states. The Bloomberg numbers were even worse for Democrats, showing Trump with an advantage, campaign aides said.

The former mayor’s advisers suggested he increase his investments in an independent general election effort that had been planned for swing states, and broke for the night. Bloomberg showed up at work at 6:30 the following morning, and waited 30 minutes to call his aides.

“He said ‘Listen, I thought about it overnight and I have decided to run,’ ” Sheekey said. “I did not expect that call.”

Bloomberg submitted signatures to make the Alabama ballot days later, and soon made his formal announcement.

Addressing reporters after his remarks in Georgia, Bloomberg made clear that he saw his presidential campaign as an extension of his philanthropic endeavors. “A president of the United States can really have a much bigger impact,” he said.

He would not commit to spending an equivalent amount for a different Democratic nominee, saying “I don’t think I’m going to be in a situation where I’ve got to look at another Democratic candidate and help them.” But he did affirm that, “regardless of who the Democratic candidate is, I will support them.”

His aides have repeatedly emphasized that his motivation to run is not an aversion to the more liberal candidates in the race, like Warren and Sanders, who have proposed much higher taxes for billionaires like him and enormous new government programs.

“He is not afraid of them winning,” said Howard Wolfson, another top political adviser. “He is afraid they are not going to win.”

For the moment, his campaign has focused on states to which no other candidate is paying significant attention. He has traveled to Arkansas, Colorado, Mississippi and Georgia to gather endorsements, announce policies and get photographed having meals at local diners. The events, advisers say, have been intentionally small, with little public notice, and have taken place sometimes in venues that require an invitation.

The campaign has plans for larger events in the coming months, leveraging the broad network of relationships he has made with liberal groups, including organizations that oppose gun violence, that Bloomberg has funded. In 2018, he said, he gave away $767 million. Recipients have included groups such as Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, smoking-cessation efforts and a number of grant projects for cities and mayors around the country.

On Saturday, he traveled to Texas to address the state party executive committee, delighting local leaders who are eager for him to contribute to their efforts. In 2018, he made a habit of leaving behind checks when he visited early nomination states. He gave $250,000 to the Iowa state party, $500,000 to the Georgia state party and $50,000 to the South Carolina State party, according to public records.

“What the Bloomberg folks are saying is they have two goals, one to be the nominee and the second is to help local state parties to start beefing up and increasing turnout,” said Texas party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who got a call from Bloomberg on his cellphone the day before Thanksgiving. “They know that Texas is not only important to the Democratic primary but it is extremely important in the general election.”

Bloomberg used the platform to assail Trump — saying he was the only New York billionaire in the race — in a shot at the president’s fortune and drawing a standing ovation from a throng that included state and local candidates who shook his hand and posed for selfies.

“The way I see it, Texas is the biggest battleground state, and I’m going to fight like hell to win its 38 electoral votes,” Bloomberg said.

Debra Kerner, a candidate for the Texas State Board of Education, is considering Bloomberg but said she prefers other presidential hopefuls who better represent the diversifying electorate in Texas.

Asked why she had approached the former mayor, telling him her cousin is married to his former schools superintendent, Kerner said, “I mean, I would like a donation.”