The Limits of Mike Bloomberg’s Massive Ad Spend

Unrivaled advertising in Super Tuesday states gave him a bump, but it won't be enough to win

mike bloomberg holding a wad of money
In late January, Bloomberg had already aired nearly twice as many television ads as Trump did in the entire 2016 campaign.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign has been on a record-shattering ad blitz. According to media tracking firm Advertising Analytics, Bloomberg is projected to spend $528 million on advertising since kicking off his presidential bid in November through Super Tuesday on March 3. 

For Bloomberg, the business tycoon and former mayor of New York City who is currently self-funding his presidential campaign, half a billion dollars is a drop in the bucket: His total net worth is estimated at $64 billion. 

Bloomberg has risen steadily in the polls since joining the race, peaking above 16.1% national support on the RealClearPolitics polling average, but has dropped to 14.8% after participating in the Feb. 19 Democratic debate in Nevada. While Bloomberg’s ad spend has helped propel him in the polls thus far, it’s clear that advertisements alone cannot secure him the Democratic nomination.

“Generally, I would say that the effects of ads have been shown to be small and to decay rapidly. But some [effects] do accumulate, especially if the advertising is imbalanced,” said Lynn Vavreck, a politics and public policy professor at UCLA who studies elections and political messaging. “Bloomberg is dominating the airwaves consistently, putting him in a position to have received benefits from this advertising, even though on average, effects are small and go away fast.”

Bloomberg has indeed dominated the airwaves. At a time when candidates are shifting their ad spend to digital, Bloomberg has spent $409 million—77% of his total outlay—on broadcast and cable TV ads. And that doesn’t include advertising that viewers watched on connected TV devices, which count in the $94 million spent on digital, according to Advertising Analytics.

After Bloomberg, the next highest ad spender has been billionaire Tom Steyer at $183 million, followed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at $46 million and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Peter Buttigieg at $33 million. It’s the billionaires, and everyone else.

“We have never seen a candidate spend so much money on advertising before,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University and the director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks and analyzes political advertising. “In late January, Bloomberg had already aired nearly twice as many television ads as Trump did in the entire 2016 campaign to include the general election, and had spent nearly as much as Hillary Clinton had over the full 2016 cycle.”

Citing his late entry into the presidential contest, Bloomberg skipped the first four contests in the nation—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—and will first appear on the ballot on March 3, when 14 states will hold primaries on the same day. Two of those Super Tuesday states—California and Texas—are the two states where Bloomberg has spent the most: $69 million and $54 million, respectively.

According to Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco who previously served as president of the political media intelligence firm Kantar Media CMAG, “We really have never seen this level of unmatched spending in such a short amount of time.” He says unmatched because, largely, Bloomberg was focusing on the Super Tuesday states while every other candidate was investing heavily in the first four states.

“Almost without exception—there was a little bit of advertising by the others maybe in California—that the first and, in some cases, the only advertising that people saw for quite some time was from Bloomberg,” Goldstein said.

And Bloomberg hasn’t stopped at traditional advertising to inundate voters with his messaging. His campaign is paying more than 500 people in California to post supportive messages on social media and text message their phone contacts.

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