Why Bloomberg Fans Should Watch Steyer in Nevada
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because these two billionaires offer case studies for whether money can buy the presidency.
The two billionaires in the Democratic race for the presidency are both going big — just in different places. Tom Steyer is flooding Nevada and South Carolina this week with millions of dollars in ads and legions of paid staff. Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg has essentially skipped the first four states, spending more than nine-tenths of his cash on the Rust Belt and those Super Tuesday states voting in early March.
The first is a state-by-state approach focused on building momentum; the second is a shock-and-awe strategy. But both were built by focusing their big war chests on places others overlooked — and are facing similar pushback. So while Bloomberg won’t be on the ballot in Nevada and South Carolina, Steyer’s performance in the two states could offer important clues to the former New York mayor’s overall chances.
Personally, the pair are as different as the coasts: Steyer, a West Coast liberal activist donor, has used his fortune to fund environmental causes, while Bloomberg, the ex-Republican New Yorker, is more known for philanthropies advocating gun control and economic redevelopment. “Tom is talking about reparations. He talks about a wealth tax. He is a grassroots guy. They have very different backgrounds and very different messages,” argues Steyer’s national press secretary, Benjamin Gerdes.
Yet they share an important similarity: Their money is green. And they both are spending gobs of it where their opponents have been slower to act.
Steyer has almost 100 paid staff in South Carolina, more than any other candidate (they are also almost entirely local, and African American). He has already made nine trips to the state ahead of its Feb. 29 primary, done more than 50 events and spent more than $18 million in radio and TV ads. Steyer’s ads ran 7,914 times in South Carolina markets from December to Jan. 9, according to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group. In that same time, his ads ran 5,721 times in Nevada — the other Democratic candidates ran six ad spots total. “Our theory in this race has always been that Tom’s message resonates in these more diverse states,” Gerdes says.
It’s going to cost a ton of money to win this election. We’ve all known that.
Moe Vela, former Biden adviser
In South Carolina, Steyer is a clear third in the polls, with a chance to rise further if former Vice President Joe Biden’s support collapses. Yet he has faced complaints from some Democrats that he’s gaming the system (this month, Biden supporter Dick Harpootlian claimed the chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus had been bought off for his endorsement). “I view it as this Beltway criticism,” says Gerdes. “On the ground, people in South Carolina are glad we’ve brought in partners from the community.” In Nevada, the results (and angst) are alike: Steyer is in a tight contest for second place with Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Bloomberg faces similar allegations from many Democrats who accuse him of trying to buy the election. How Steyer performs in the face of such criticism could hold key lessons for Bloomberg, suggest analysts.
“It’s no longer a mini experiment: It’s actually what Bloomberg is doing,” says Scott Tranter, founder of the Republican data and technology firm 0ptimus, which has partnered with OZY on the exclusive election Forecast that shows Bloomberg remains a long shot for the nomination.
Like Steyer, Bloomberg is dropping cash where other candidates are not — just more. After all, Bloomberg is worth $62.8 billion, and Steyer “only” about $1.6 billion.
After skipping the early voting calendar, Bloomberg is focusing on the 14 states (plus American Samoa) voting on March 3, aka Super Tuesday. He has called California “my Iowa,” with plans for 800 paid staff in the state. He has 175 staffers across 19 offices in Texas and has already made multiple trips there. In North Carolina, he has 125 paid staff and eight offices, while most candidates have done little more than a cursory stop. “The other candidates have been spending their time in Iowa and New Hampshire. I’ve been here … and not just because I discovered Eastern-style barbecue,” Bloomberg quipped in Raleigh last week to a crowd of several hundred supporters.
His strategy might be working. Bloomberg now is polling second in Texas, and he recently surpassed Biden as the frontrunner in Florida. From former North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (“He puts his money where his mouth has been”) to Bloomberg himself (“We have the record and the resources to defeat” Trump) to the stage designs and free barbecue for supporters, the emphasis on his money is not subtle.
Having the resources to beat Trump is a central part of the pitch for both Bloomberg and Steyer. “It’s going to cost a ton of money to win this election. We’ve all known that,” says Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden who hasn’t backed any candidate in 2020. Meanwhile, Tranter suggests Bloomberg’s communications team might be behind leaked stories on the team’s high pay — between $8,000 and $12,000 a month for state campaign positions, roughly twice that of most campaigns, plus free iPhones and Macbooks. Tranter says, “This is them saying, ‘Yes, we want to put our dick on the table and say we have more money than you.’”
The attacks on Bloomberg — who enthusiastically endorsed President George W. Bush and backed aggressive “stop and frisk” policing in New York — will only mount as the opposition research on him starts to unfurl.
Whether it’s Steyer or Bloomberg, there’s also no guarantee that the billionaires’ votes will hold strong behind the curtain on election day. “Until we have the final vote results, we cannot definitively say yet that pumping all this money results in Steyer getting second or third place,” Vela points out.
Still, there are signs voters are buying what Bloomberg is selling: “Electable … and he’s got a big pile of money,” says Robert Williamson, a 57-year-old Black Democrat from Raleigh, about why he supports Bloomberg. He is troubled by Bloomberg’s record on race but believes the billionaire is willing to “drop the hammer” on the president. Steyer’s showing on Saturday will be the first test of whether the pricey hammer can break through in the voting booth.
Daniel Malloy contributed to reporting for this story.