The upcoming election season promises to be the most expensive in American history. A study by Cross Screen Media and published at Politico estimates that $6 billion – a 57 percent increase from 2018 – will be spent. Currently leading the charge towards that $6 billion are billionaires Tom Steyer and entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Can Money Buy Electoral Victory?
Of the $410 million already spent by all candidates, Steyer and Bloomberg account for 78 percent of that. This adds up to $320 million. Despite spending all that money, however, both candidates are mostly polling in the single digits. Steyer and Bloomberg’s expenditure has had very little impact on most voters. They’ve also been unable to compete with the top four front-runners of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg.
So far it’s only been age – Bloomberg is 77, and the second-oldest candidate – that has allowed either to compete with the top tier Democratic candidates. However, Bloomberg’s highest polling is 10%, which allows him to squeak into the top four in the Utah Democratic Primary ,and Steyer has purchased enough ad time in South Carolina to work his way into second place in that state’s primary. The only stiff competition these two billionaires are facing is how to outspend one another.
Bloomberg’s Bizarre Political Journey
Meanwhile, the four front-runners are sharpening their elbows and their policies as the season kicks into high gear and the stakes become larger. All of this has left many strategists curious about what the two billionaires end game is. Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg has a long history of bouncing around the American political party spectrum. He was a lifelong Democrat, then became a Republican, then an Independent and now he’s back to being a Democrat. After being elected as the Republican Mayor of New York City, he became an ardent supporter of less than progressive ideas like:
- The discriminatory policing policy “stop and frisk” which largely targeted people of color.
- Financial deregulation
- Social Security cuts
- Campaigned to change NYC Mayoral term limits
- Supporting George W. Bush and his second term
“I Don’t Know How True All Of It Is”
As a man who honed his financial prowess on the testosterone-driven Wall Street of the past, Bloomberg’s lifestyle managed to roll into his entrepreneurial life too. Bloomberg has been accused of creating a “frat house” atmosphere as he was building up his namesake, Bloomberg L.P. This may prove more problematic than Joe Biden’s touching “issue” from 2019. Indeed, there are currently three active sexual harassment lawsuits against his company.
Given the sensitivity in America to gender relations, equality, and identity, this may be a larger issue for the candidate. In 2018, in the wake of the disgraced CBS news anchor Charlie Rose dismissal for sexual harassment, Bloomberg was quoted by The New York Times as saying: “I don’t know how true all of it is.” This prompted spokesman Stu Loeser to issue a statement saying: “He (Bloomberg) believes his words have not always aligned with his values…”
Steyer And Need To Impeach: “A Weirdo”
Fellow candidate and billionaire Tom Steyer’s history doesn’t carry the same baggage that Bloomberg history does. Aside from his investments, which include private prisons and coal, he could almost be an almost “progressive” billionaire candidate. Most notably, he’s never been a fan of President Donald Trump. So much so that he started the group Need to Impeach long before conversations began about impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives. President Trump even took notice of Steyer by calling him “a weirdo.”
Steyer also has the type of pedigree that fast tracks a person to billionaire status. A Yale undergraduate who went to work for Morgan Stanley, then onto the Stanford Graduate School of Business before joining Goldman Sachs. From Goldman Sachs Steyer worked for a private equity firm before starting his successful hedge fund, Farallon Capital.
In a recent good-spirited, yet contentious, interview with The Intercept’s Medhi Hassan’s podcast, Deconstructed, Hassan asked Steyer repeatedly why he doesn’t take his money and invest it elsewhere. Hassan suggests things like using his wealth to conquer malaria or backing other Democratic state candidates to gain control of the U.S. Senate. Steyer emphatically retorted: “Because I think I can win.”
Income Inequality, Politics And Democracy
American politics is a menage a trois of income inequality, politics, and Democracy. And while it seems obvious to everyone but the two candidates, neither Steyer nor Bloomberg has a chance of winning the Democratic nomination this July. But maybe that’s not the point. Eric Levitz points out in New York Magazine that perhaps their message is really a visual dog whistle to other billionaires detailing that the real power and influence comes from running for office.
With a net worth of $58 billion for Bloomberg and +/- $2 billion for Steyer, the amount of money they spend on their campaigns will ultimately prove insignificant to their overall net worth. Considering the rates at which personal and business assets accrue, it’s more than conceivable that their net worth will increase during their campaign odyssey, no matter what they spend.
As George Soros and Sheldon Adelson represent, both Democrats and Republicans aren’t immune or new to billionaires purchasing influence. They and the other uber-rich billionaires have elected to avoid the front line of the political fray. Before Donald Trump, billionaires preferred to stay behind the scenes and not get dirty, while still reaping the benefits.
That was until 2015 when Donald Trump opened the floodgates on billionaires running for office. Trump created the template—both by actually winning and then creating his tax break of 2017. It was marketed as a boon for the middle-class but has proven to be everything but that. While the Federal Government ran a massive deficit, wealth inequality has “increased to its highest level in three decades.”
The latent message of both Steyer and Bloomberg is that ultimate power, win or lose, is on the campaign trail. Even if they don’t motivate their less vain and narcissistic billionaire brethren to jump into the democratic process, they’re proving that doing so won’t impact their wealth. It could be argued that they’re proving you can yield more influence by running than financially supporting a candidate.
But even more than that, they’re showing that should a political figure, like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or movement, like universal health care, threaten themselves or their ilk, the cost to get their voices heard is near zero.
With this political season on par to spend $6 billion, consider that the world’s richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, makes $6.5 billion a month. Should Bezos ever decide to run for political office for any reason, the kind of money he has would make a formidable adversary to any politician or policy that he opposed.
On their current track, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg will spend more than $500 million on a campaign that they have no chance of winning. The short-term impact these two candidates will have on either the Democratic party or the process will be negligible, if at all. The long-term impact will could see an increase in the number of uber-wealthy individuals attempting a run for political office.
So, by the time the Democrats open their convention on July 13, Steyer and Bloomberg will prove to their fellow billionaires to have won something more important and more impactful than public office…the power of influence…without the expense.