With a highly unconventional campaign strategy and no shortage of funds, billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is laying the groundwork for Michigan to vote blue in November – even if he’s not the Democratic presidential nominee.
Bloomberg’s huge investments in battleground states like Michigan come as the rest of the Democratic field travels to early voting states like New Hampshire, where the Feb. 11 primary is swiftly approaching.
“All of the Democratic candidates have flown to New Hampshire. I’m here in Michigan,” Bloomberg said to a Detroit audience of almost 500 on Tuesday following the Iowa caucuses.
Bloomberg was the last to enter the 2020 race when he launched on Nov. 24, after 10 candidates – including former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) – had already dropped out. Regardless, Bloomberg’s massive digital, media and organizing operation in Michigan is already the largest in the state’s presidential primary history.
The media mogul has said all of it would be available to whichever Democrat clinches the nomination, although he firmly (and not surprisingly) believes that his own candidacy has the best shot at defeating President Donald Trump.
In the meantime, while other Democratic presidential candidates move more or less in tandem on the traditional candidate route, Bloomberg is instead sinking millions of dollars into battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona.
In February alone, the number of Bloomberg campaign offices in Michigan is expected to jump from two (both in the Detroit area) to almost a dozen throughout the state.
His team now boasts more than 2,100 staffers in 40 states and territories. With that unprecedented number of people on the ground and millions being spent on TV ads each week, Bloomberg hopes that the powerful campaign infrastructure he is building will give Democrats their best possible shot at denying Trump with a second term.
Bloomberg has scooped up veteran campaign staff in Michigan, including senior advisors Jill Alper, a Hillary Clinton and Jennifer Granholm strategist, and Jamaine Dickens, a longtime Detroit Democratic operative who’s worked for former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. State Political Director Ian Conyers is a former state senator from Detroit and state Campaign Director Michael Kurtz served as Martin O’Malley’s national finance director during his 2016 presidential run.
There are currently about 65 organizers on the ground right now in Michigan, with two offices open in Detroit, said Charly Norton, Bloomberg’s Michigan communications director. She said the campaign plans to open more in the coming weeks and add more than 30 people to the staff in those new offices, which include Lansing, Ann Arbor, Warren, Oakland, Flint, Macomb, Bloomfield Hills, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and the Traverse City area.
And although Bloomberg’s candidacy has still not made the leap to top-tier status, the most recent RealClearPolitics average of national polls for the Democratic nomination now has him at 10.6% – in fourth place, behind former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
He’s also gaining ground in Michigan, at least in general election matchups. A poll released by the Lansing-based EPIC-MRA on Jan. 15 showed Bloomberg with a 7-point lead over Trump in the Great Lakes State, pointing to a larger national trend of Bloomberg gaining slow traction among Democrats and self-described independents.
Michigan and media matters
Last week, in particular, was an eventful one for the Bloomberg campaign. On Tuesday morning, the New York Times reported that Bloomberg ordered a doubling of his ad spending in all targeted markets after the previous night’s chaotic Iowa caucuses. Hours later, Bloomberg spoke to a crowd at the Eastern, an industrial event space in Detroit.
Tuesday’s RSVP-only gathering was billed as an organizing event and jam-packed with media and campaign staff. After being introduced by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Bloomberg joked with the crowd about how much he spent on his Super Bowl ad (more than $10 million), laid out his vision for defeating Trump in November, and spoke about the importance of Michigan’s role in this fall’s election.
In 2016, although former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been favored by polling analysts FiveThirtyEight to win Michigan by 21 points, Sanders scooped up 49.8% of the vote in the primary to win. In the general election, Trump narrowly won the state over Clinton by a margin of .23%.
This cycle, the Michigan Democratic Party started organizing efforts early to prevent a repeat of 2020. A slew of Democratic candidates — including many who have since dropped out — have made repeat campaign stops in Michigan thus far.
“Obviously, Michigan matters. … Given the fact that every other candidate in this race has been spending the last year out in Iowa and New Hampshire, in states that won’t ultimately decide the election, investment here in Michigan and having a real ground game here is going to make a difference,” Norton said.
Norton told the Advance that the Bloomberg campaign is “not taking any area for granted, any demographic for granted.”
“He is laying that groundwork in the places that matter, and investing in places that haven’t necessarily had a Democratic campaign in a really long time,” Norton said.
One noteworthy difference between Bloomberg and other candidates: He’s been absent from every Democratic debate so far. This makes sense given that his campaign launched after many of those had already happened, but his ineligibility for debates since then has largely been a function of his own strategy.
Namely, Bloomberg has been adamant about not accepting any campaign donations. This has presented an obvious conflict with the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) debate rules, which required candidates to have at least 200,000 individual campaign donors in order to qualify for the last eight debates.
The DNC’s ever-tightening rules came under fire in the last several months by candidates, who argued they seemed to box out non-white candidates. Nonetheless, DNC Chair Tom Perez upheld the rules. Only one candidate of color, Andrew Yang, qualified for the debate held Friday in Manchester, N.H.
While the other candidates were throwing punches Friday, Bloomberg was able to stay above the fray on social media.
“I am a doer and a problem solver – not a talker. I’ll put my record of accomplishment up against anyone. I’m ready to take on Donald Trump – and win,” Bloomberg tweeted toward the end of the debate.
But despite his physical presence onstage, the former New York mayor was still criticized by the candidates onstage for his massive ad spending. Bloomberg has spent at least $169 million more than fellow billionaire candidate Tom Steyer.
Late last month, the DNC suddenly announced it had decided to abolish its donor threshold requirement for the next debate in Las Vegas Feb. 19. The new rules require a delegate threshold (at least one pledged delegate from Iowa or New Hampshire) or a polling threshold (10% support in certain national polls) to qualify.
This rule change, which opens the door to possibly including the self-funded Bloomberg on a future debate stage, has been fiercely criticized by his Democratic opponents. At a recent press conference, Sanders called the newly relaxed rules an “outrage.”
Bloomberg’s refusal to accept donations in general has attracted the ire of some of his fellow 2020 contenders, like fellow entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who in January criticized the message that he says Bloomberg’s strategy sends to voters.
“Saying that he doesn’t need us to invest in him … it’s actually unfortunately a message saying, ‘I don’t need anyone.’ That’s not necessarily what we need right now in the presidency,” Yang said at a media breakfast hosted by Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg has come under fire by many, including members of his own media outlet, for the rules set out for Bloomberg News reporters wishing to cover the presidential race now that the former mayor himself has jumped in. Bloomberg has always prohibited his outlet from investigating his own personal life and finances, and announced in November that this editorial restriction would be extended to other Democratic presidential candidates to supposedly level the playing field.
“They get a paycheck,” Bloomberg told CBS’s Gayle King in December. “But with your paycheck comes some restrictions and responsibilities.”
In a statement following Bloomberg’s campaign launch on Nov. 24, Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait said, “We will continue our tradition of not investigating (and his family and foundation), and we will extend the same policy to his rivals in the Democratic primaries. We cannot treat Mike’s Democratic competitors different from him.”
The campaigns of Biden, Sanders, Warren and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) did not respond to requests for comment about Bloomberg’s Michigan operation.
Tess Whittlesey, deputy national press secretary for former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, declined to comment on Bloomberg’s strategy specifically but provided an emailed statement on the mayor’s campaign.
“We have a team dedicated to the marathon states, and they have been actively organizing for months across the country, including in Michigan. Michigan has a robust grassroots volunteer organization that is organizing in every congressional district, with hundreds of volunteers growing support for Pete on the ground,” Whittlesey wrote.
General election-style messaging
Bloomberg’s message also sets him apart from other Democrats in 2020.
The well-trodden route is for candidates to differentiate themselves from others in the pack, before and during primary and caucus season, and then pivot to a more unifying general election message upon winning their party’s nomination.
But Bloomberg is leaping ahead and going all-in on general-election -type messaging now.
His ubiquitous ads are generally positive with a focus on positioning him as the best candidate to take on Trump, without necessarily arguing why he’s better than other Democrats. His ads have contrasted his record on issues like climate change, gun violence and jobs with Trump.
This is far from the first time Bloomberg has spent political dollars in Michigan, however. He has a history of financially backing Michigan candidates on both sides of the aisle, including GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, which progressives have balked at.
His political action committee (PAC) also provided financial support to the 2018 campaigns of now-U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly). Stevens, to whom Bloomberg’s PAC gave $2.2 million in that race, announced Saturday that she has endorsed Bloomberg for president.
Stevens said she’s with Bloomberg “because he has the experience to unite the country and defeat Donald Trump this fall.” Former Flint Mayor Karen Weaver also endorsed Bloomberg.
In Michigan alone, and in the span of just three months, Bloomberg has spent upwards of $6.6 million on ads, according to the most recent figures from the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
Bloomberg’s pro-Democrat and anti-Trump messaging and advertising machine is basically functioning like the DNC and assorted SuperPACs in general election season.
A key difference that analysts have noted between America’s two major political parties is the Republicans’ effective media machine. Republicans benefit from a more homogeneous, unified base that is loyal to the party’s largely synchronized messaging. This began with talk radio in the 1980s, as chronicled by the Atlantic, and has since evolved into a mainstream propaganda operation spearheaded by media giants like Fox News.
The right knows how to organize around a single talking point and swipe at Democrats often and where they know it will make the most impact with their base – whether it’s fact or fiction. For their part, Democrats have the intrinsic advantage of a diverse coalition. But this can work against them on a single messaging strategy; while having many different voices within a party is beneficial in every other way, it can lead to internal division at the expense of unifying to beat the opposing party.
This has led to consternation, mostly from the party’s progressive wing, that the DNC has been ineffective at boosting Democrats’ arguments for voting blue and beating Trump.
Bloomberg’s campaign has been effectively filling that role since he jumped into the race.
Such a strategy is remarkably unique. Although many still balk at the idea of a billionaire getting into the game late and flooding the airwaves with millions of his own in lieu of debating other candidates, Bloomberg’s unprecedented marketing strategy for both himself and the Democratic party is gaining some people’s attention.
“He ultimately wants to defeat Donald Trump, and will do what it takes. And that means investing in these states, building that infrastructure early. And he is committed to supporting the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, whether it’s him or someone else. So this infrastructure will remain in place for that nominee,” Norton said.
Whether it bolsters his own chances at nomination or sets the proverbial stage for another Democrat to beat Trump, the March 10 primary is right around the corner – so we’ll all find out if it’s working here soon enough.