Political campaigns inhabit zero-sum worlds. A million dollars spent on television ads in Nevada is a million dollars not spent on television ads in Texas. Opening a new field office in South Carolina means less money for a new office in Southern California.
Every day, campaigns have to make tough decisions. How much to invest in field organizing? Direct mailers? How many canvassers should be hired? How many, when things spoil, should be cut?
What if a campaign never had to answer these questions ever again?
Michael Bloomberg’s bid for the presidency carries this terrifying possibility. It has been likened, in the press, to a juggernaut or a Death Star, but even those analogies fail — isn’t a planet-sized spaceship still limited by fuel and gravitational pull? Bloomberg’s campaign is unlike any we’ve witnessed in American history, an inevitable and nihilistic outcome of our absurd campaign finance laws.
Thanks to the Supreme Court, the federal government cannot place limits on the self-financing of campaigns by ultrarich candidates. Bloomberg, who has already spent $400 million in just a few months on the trail, has a net worth north of $60 billion, an unfathomable sum that has bought him alliances and silence in equal measure. This is what oligarchy looks like: mayors, members of Congress, and various officials thirsty to endorse Bloomberg in the hopes his endless cash can aid their future endeavors. And for those who may criticize him, there is the always the threat of the stick outweighing the carrot: the cash spigot can always be turned against you.
Like many, I was initially skeptical of Bloomberg’s chances to disrupt the primary because he was such a late entry and his national poll numbers only recently began to rise dramatically. His odds of seizing the nomination from Bernie Sanders, who seems to be the only candidate left unaffected by Bloomberg’s surge, are still long without a brokered convention. Eviscerating Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar won’t mean that much if Sanders maintains his position of strength. This is the silver lining in what is already a disturbing thought experiment come to life — a campaign devoid of limits and empty of values disrupting the frail democracy we have left.
Without his monstrous wealth, Bloomberg would be another Michael Bennet or Steve Bullock, a charisma-free muddle, utterly lost to history. He has purchased name recognition and credibility, entirely ignoring the kind of painstaking outreach and ordinary coalition-building campaigns must engage in. Much political commentary has been rendered moot by Bloomberg’s spending, which will easily exceed $1 billion. There is no point, anymore, to speculating about Nevada caucus strategy, Buttigieg’s black voter problem, or how well Klobuchar delivers her zingers at the debates. The horse race chatter, always a distraction to begin with, is now consigned to irrelevance in the face of the only story that really matters. Given his existing wealth and ability to passively reap billions without lifting a finger means that even after spending so many millions, he may not even end up with less wealth than he had before. By next year, he could very well be a richer man.
In the meantime, the oligarch is getting antsy. His campaign manager fired off a threat at Sanders, warning of dirt he was ready to unload on the democratic-socialist frontrunner. On one hand, this is an idle threat: Sanders has been a national figure for over four years now and attempts to red-bait him over his trips to the Soviet Union or dredge up political writings from the 1970s have failed miserably. He’s a known, and generally well-liked, quantity. There is probably no single piece of opposition research that can derail Sanders.
On the other hand, those fearing an oligarch’s total seizure of the Democratic Party should take the Bloomberg campaign seriously. Until now, his advertising onslaught has merely been a mix of forgettable Trump-bashing and generic self-promotion. On the radio, Michael Douglas will tell you how Mike Bloomberg, a real middle-class guy, got knocked down and got back up again to build a successful company. On TV, Bloomberg will pretend to be endorsed by Barack Obama. We don’t know yet what a wholly negative Bloomberg campaign expenditure looks like. What if, after burning through the first billion celebrating Mike, the second billion is reserved just for smearing Sanders? What if every major media market in America, each day, is subjected to nothing but an endless barrage of TV and radio ads calling Sanders unfit for office? Sanders could survive it. But we don’t have any precedent.
It is important, always, to keep scale in mind. Four years ago, we witnessed the most expensive election in American history. In just the past three months, Bloomberg has already surpassed the entirety of the 2016 Trump campaign’s spending. By next month, he will have likely eclipsed Hillary Clinton’s $768 million. By the spring, he may spend more than the two top 2016 candidates combined. Bloomberg is a pioneer for oligarchs everywhere, the ultra-billionaires who always long for more than they already have. There is nothing to stop a Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Walton scion, or an anonymous hedge funder from entering a future contest to buy their way to contention.
We know now that the Democratic National Committee will change their debate rules overnight to accommodate prolific self-funders. We know that Democrats can be as receptive as Republicans to oligarchy. What we don’t know is where this all ends. Once more, we are through the looking glass — only Bloomberg knows how much he’s willing to spend to short-circuit our democracy, once and for all.