The story of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is one of a whole lot of money spent on broken promises, no results, and a bad reputation. Bloomberg’s late entry into the crowded Democratic Party presidential primary last fall was marked with the intrigue of a well-financed and well-known candidate deploying a unique strategy in an unusual race.
One of the richest men in the world, who built a financial empire complete with a massive media conglomerate reaching his name to the far corners of the Earth, Bloomberg served three terms as New York City mayor before jumping into presidential politics personally.
The Manhattan business mogul dove both feet in as a relatively fresh face whose political reputation beyond the Big Apple could best-described as “The Big Gulp” guy for his ban on large sodas. With a net worth of about $53 billion at the time he launched his campaign and coming from the same background as the incumbent president, Bloomberg was in position to brand himself as richer than Donald Trump, smarter than Donald Trump, more experienced than Donald Trump, and more successful than Donald Trump, while claiming to be a moderate voice in a primary pushing the party left at breakneck speed.
“Even though Donald and I are both from New York, the truth is we could not be more different,” Bloomberg said during a campaign stop in Salt Lake City, Utah in February. “In fact, I bill myself as the Un-Trump.”
According to a poll from the Morning Consult released one day earlier, voters appeared to agree. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters rated Bloomberg the most successful businessman between President Trump and fellow Democratic rival Tom Steyer, also a billionaire.
Bloomberg’s strategy was unconventional. Acknowledging he was likely too late in the game to be competitive in the first primary states, Bloomberg instead flexed his financial muscle to build a nationwide operation to compete in the Super Tuesday contests, in which more than a third of the total delegates would be up for grabs.
“It’s much more efficient to go to the big states, to go to the swing states,” Bloomberg explained in February. “The others chose to compete in the first four. And nobody makes them do it, they wanted to do it… Those are old rules.”
By pouring millions of dollars into key states to drown out the airwaves, Bloomberg’s massive political operation — complete with more than 2,300 staff paid double what employees made on rival campaigns — served as a true test for whether a businessman with all the money in the world could buy the Oval Office. As the numbers came in on the biggest day of the primary in Marc,h however, Bloomberg’s billion-dollar presidential campaign proved a bad investment.
On the debate stage, Bloomberg appeared dismissive and out-of-touch as he suffered attacks from presidential rivals in prime time while opposition research on the campaign trail unearthed bombshell after bombshell, blowing holes in the young but well-oiled machine. The press went after Bloomberg over stop-and-frisk while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren hammered Bloomberg on alleged misconduct towards women.
Presidential campaigns tend to bring a level of scrutiny unrivaled in any other area of public life, and what emerged was likely just the tip of the ice berg had Bloomberg made it through the gauntlet of the primary.
When the dust settled on the Wednesday following Super Tuesday, Bloomberg claimed 44 of 1,991 delegates and carried one first-place finish, in American Samoa, despite spending more than $1 billion on the effort. This prompted him to drop out and endorse Joe Biden. Bloomberg ultimately ended the primary with just 59 delegates.
Bloomberg’s campaign staff were supposed to be okay. Except they weren’t. People who were paid to tell the country exactly who Bloomberg was found out exactly who Bloomberg was.
After being promised by the campaign they would remain on board to help with the businessman’s political ventures beyond the primary to November, whether Bloomberg made it to the fall ballot or not, hundreds of staff were quickly laid off and given their phones and laptops, valued between $1,400 and $1,700, as consolidation prizes they’d still have to pay taxes on.
“We sincerely appreciate your commitment and dedication over the past few months!” read an email to employees, reported by the New York Times. “As a token of our appreciation, we are offering you the opportunity to keep your laptop and iPhone.”
Some prize for unemployment as the nation shut down over the novel Wuhan coronavirus.
Several days later, Bloomberg broke his employment pledge to dozens more, by scrapping plans for an independent organization to support Biden. Instead, Bloomberg sent truckloads of money to the Democratic Party and spent $100 million more to promote the Democratic nominee in several key states where Biden lost by comfortable margins, including Ohio, Texas, and Florida.
Bloomberg also poured money into local down-ballot races in Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina, losing every effort.
In total, Bloomberg dropped upwards of $1.2 billion on political campaigns this year, almost double the $760 million President Barack Obama spent in the entire 2008 cycle, yet yielded no results but a battered reputation.