Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are screaming that former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is trying to “buy the Presidency!”
“Go ahead,” they should say. “Make my day.”
Seasoned political people know campaigns with the most money win 87% of the time. That applies to national, statewide, congressional, state legislative and municipal races across the country.
What is less well-known is that under 24% of wealthy candidates who fund their own campaigns ever win. In 2016, that number was a paltry 12.5%.
Donald Trump could have bankrolled his entire 2016 presidential campaign by himself. He goofed all the major networks into giving him $5 billion in free advertising instead. President Trump spent $5 per vote, the lowest amount of money per vote received by a winning presidential candidate in modern campaign history.
Hillary Clinton spent almost twice as much, over $9 per vote, and lost.
What gives? Why doesn’t every rich person who pours their personal wealth into a campaign win if 87% of the time the campaign with the most money wins?
First, most self-funders are new to electoral politics. They think because they are wealthy, they can take their talents from the private sector and instantly be successful in the maelstrom of politics.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all newcomers who run for office lose the first time out. George Washington lost his first race for the Virginia House of Burgesses because he failed to spend the most money on alcohol on election day for his supporters. So did James Madison.
Think of it as “Campaign Finance, 18th Century-Style”.
Second, the candidate has to be likable. Third, the rich person has to connect with average folks and not be distant, aloof and separated from the voters. Fourth, the rich person has to run a campaign based on issues people care about, such as their job and quality education for their children.
Most successful self-funding businessmen who enter politics want to talk about budgets, disintermediation and foreign policy, none of which are on the average voter’s Top 50 list.
The most important reason why self-funders lose is that rich people who spend millions of their own money to win a campaign give off political pheromones to registered voters that scream: “I DON’T NEED YOUR MONEY AND I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!”
Average voters don’t like rich people lording their wealth over them. They believe rich people are insulated from the stresses and agonies of life regular people go through daily.
One group of people do love self-funders, however: political consultants. A general consultant can make 15% off ad buys plus millions for direct mail and social media placements. Tapping into one source of big wealth such as Bloomberg’s is far easier than calling thousands of people who are limited to $2,800 contributions by current campaign laws.
Who wouldn’t want to make 15% off Bloomberg’s billions?
Former GOP political consultant Lee Atwater, God rest his soul, explained the dilemma for self-funders this way: “I would rather get $1 from 100,000 people than $100,000 from the candidate. If a person can only contribute $1 to any campaign, they are not going to vote for anyone else because that $1 means something to that voter. Money is fungible; it can come from anywhere. Votes can’t. They have to come from registered voters in your district or state. That is what I am after; votes, not just money”.
On the other hand, Lee was also fond of quoting former Speaker of the California State Assembly Jesse Unruh, who said: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Which it is. Eighty-seven percent of the time, it produces a victory. However, chances are very high that Bloomberg may blow $1 billion of his personal wealth and not even secure the Democratic nomination.
When Bloomberg loses — or Tom Steyer, for that matter — consider their personal investment in their campaigns an “economic stimulus package.” To their campaign handlers and to the TV stations who will love their money.