On Wednesday, less than four months after Michael Bloomberg got into the 2020 Democratic race, he ended his campaign after a hugely disappointing showing on Super Tuesday.
This is a very good thing for democracy.
To be clear: I have nothing against Bloomberg personally. But his campaign was a massively important test case of whether a hugely rich person can simply step into a race for president and, by dint of his unlimited wealth, secure a party nomination solely on the back of slickly produced — and ubiquitous — TV ads.
Simply put: Had Bloomberg become the party nominee, we would have seen a lot more billionaires thinking to themselves: “Hey, I can do this. Heck, I should do this.” His utter defeat — he won nine delegates (and counting) and all of them in American Samoa so far — suggest very strongly that there is more to running for president than just being rich and buying hundreds of millions of dollars in TV ad time.
Consider the massive scope of Bloomberg’s spending.
In the approximately 118 days he was in the race, he dropped at least $570 million of his own money on the campaign — including $234 million in Super Tuesday states alone. A quick bit of math shows that Bloomberg spent more than $4.8 million a day in the race. Or looked at differently, Bloomberg spent more than $63 million for each of the delegates he has won so far. (Nota bene: Once all delegates from Super Tuesday are allocated, Bloomberg will wind up with more delegates. But not a ton more.)
And given that Bloomberg’s net worth is over $60 billion, he could have kept spending at exactly this rate — or even higher — without any appreciable dent in his fortune. And there is no one in the field who could have come even close to that sort of spending.
But what Super Tuesday — and the several weeks leading up to it — seem to prove is that billions in net worth and hundreds of millions in TV ads aren’t determinative in a presidential race. Not even close. (Former Vice President Joe Biden, who chalked up nine state victories on Super Tuesday, spent $2.2 million on ads, less than 1/100th of Bloomberg’s spending.)
What doomed Bloomberg was the fact that he couldn’t get away with just doing TV ads. After the Democratic National Committee changes its debate rules for the pre-Nevada and pre-South Carolina gathering, Bloomberg made the stage. And he bombed.
Bloomberg’s performance in the Las Vegas debate was shockingly bad — a toxic combination of woodenness and snarkiness that left voters looking for an alternative to Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sorely disappointed. In the next debate, the following week in Charleston, South Carolina, the contrast between “TV ad Bloomberg” and “Actual Bloomberg” was even more striking due to the fact that at every commercial during the debate there was at least one Bloomberg commercial running. The difference between the two was unmistakable: TV Bloomberg was a solid, proven and capable leader. Actual Bloomberg was halting, uncertain and, at times, just plain nasty to his competitors.
That gap — coupled with Biden’s remarkable turnaround in the race after his victory in South Carolina — ensured that Bloomberg would underperform on Super Tuesday. And knowing Bloomberg’s data-driven approach to, well, everything, his decision to both get out of the race and to endorse Biden makes perfect sense.
Whether you like Biden or Bloomberg or Sanders (or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren), you should be able to see the greater good in the failure of the billionaire businessman to use his overwhelming wealth to win. If democracy is simply about spending the most money on your campaign, if people are that easily swayed by good-looking TV ads (and Bloomberg’s ads were very good), then we are in a very dark place. It should be harder than that to win. It should be more about what you’ve done (and what you will do) than what you have.
While the focus will be on what Bloomberg spent — and how he seemingly wasted it — that sort of misses the big point here. Bloomberg is so wealthy that he could spend what he spent in this race every four years and never run out of money (or close to it.) The bigger takeaway is that money alone can’t win you a presidential nomination. That there’s more to it than that. And that is, ultimately, a very good sign for a healthy democracy.