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
Headshot of Scott Nover

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.

Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University, said Bloomberg’s ad spend isn’t entirely unprecedented: “Think back to the enormous expenditures on behalf of Jeb Bush in 2016 before a disappointing finish in South Carolina.” After Bush’s failure, Wired eulogized that “there was a time not too many cycles ago when the $152 million war chest Bush amassed between his campaign and his Super PAC, Right to Rise, would have made him unstoppable.”

Bloomberg, too, may see the limits of his own war chest. Specifically, a rocky debate performance in Nevada last week seemed to clip his wings. A recent Morning Consult poll found that “the share of voters who said Bloomberg was their first choice” for the Democratic nomination “fell 3 percentage points since before the debate, to 17%.” None of the other candidates saw statistically significant gains or losses during the same period. 

“There is no guarantee that ads would increase vote share, so to the extent that Bloomberg’s have done so—and then had the shine come off after the debate performance—is an interesting case of ads increasing awareness and information, and then reality shaping that in a different way,” Vavreck said.

“I’m not sure that it’s going to be the case that support for Bloomberg will decrease following his debate performance, but the ceiling has come down pretty significantly,” Goldstein added.

Green said that advertising can sometimes give candidates a bump in the polls, but that has more to do with the “free media coverage they generate.” He says it’s hard to read the poll results since the debates. “Did [Bloomberg] take a hit, or are the polls simply noisy and prone to fluctuation?” he posited. “Or did the tone of free media coverage change once he was back to being the object of open attacks?”

The marketing insights firm Borrell Associates predicts that the 2020 presidential election will see $10 billion in candidates’ combined advertising spend, up from $9.8 billion in 2016. Meanwhile, they predict that associated marketing costs will skyrocket. Their forecast of total political marketing spend—which includes both advertising and marketing costs—will be $20 billion this cycle, up from $12 billion in 2016.

The [dollars] spent per eligible voter has remained relatively flat,” said Gordon Borrell, the firm’s CEO. “Campaigns will hire minions to design and spread messages on social media and email, or read/analyze the hordes of marketing data that comes along with online activity.”

Borrell estimates that if Bloomberg is “likely to account for about 6% of all political advertising expenditures” if he spends between $500 million and $700 million. He said that successful presidential candidates typically spend about $1 billion. 

If Bloomberg becomes the nominee, he said, he’d likely surpass that $1 billion figure.

For now, another debate looms: Bloomberg will join six other candidates on stage tonight in Charleston, S.C. Just as last week’s debate dampened Bloomberg’s momentum, another debate stage means another chance to appeal to voters before the Super Tuesday primaries in which he so desperately needs to perform. Advertising can only get Bloomberg so far if he cannot perform on the stages that really matter.

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.