Michael Bloomberg spent big—like $100 million big—to help Democrats in the midterms. He’s now telegraphed his intention to go even bigger to help them retake the White House in 2020. Politico reported Wednesday that the former New York City mayor is ready to devote “at least” a half-billion dollars of his own money to help defeat Donald Trump. The $500 million question is whether Bloomberg fancies himself the man for that job.
Bloomberg has not yet announced whether he will run in the Democratic primary. If he runs, he will use that half-billion-dollar stake—roughly $175 million more than the Trump campaign spent over the course of the entire 2016 election cycle—to fuel his campaign through the 2020 primary season, with the expectation that the sum represents a floor, not a ceiling, on his potential spending.
If Bloomberg declines to seek the presidency, his intention is to run an unprecedented data-heavy campaign designed to operate as a shadow political party for the eventual Democratic nominee.
That is a staggering amount of money. While Bloomberg isn’t pledging to hand that cash over directly to the eventual Democratic nominee, the 2016 individual donor leaderboard nonetheless offers some perspective on the size of his promised investment. The biggest individual donor that cycle was Tom Steyer, who together with his wife gave $91 million to Democratic candidates. Bloomberg gave about $24 million, putting him at 10th on the list that year. The top 15 donors combined gave slightly less than $500 million.
Bloomberg’s desire to derail Trump is unambiguous. The ex-mayor flirted with an independent bid in 2016 before pulling the plug out of fear he’d inadvertently swing the election to Trump. Bloomberg has also become a vocal critic of the president since he took office. Coming on top of last year’s $100 million support for Democrats, Bloomberg’s new $500 million pledge makes clear he’s done with bipartisan funding in the age of Trump.
Still, it’s conspicuous just how neatly all this talk of a massive investment also lines up with Bloomberg’s own White House ambitions.
Bloomberg has been teasing a presidential run for more than a decade, but he’s put an awful lot of money where his mouth is in the lead-up to 2020. Last year, his team made sure his $100 million investment into Democratic candidates did not go unnoticed. Bloomberg now says he’ll decide by the end of this month whether to seek the party’s nomination, but a close read of the Politico article seems to offer a few big hints on which way he is leaning.
For starters, one of Bloomberg’s top aides went on the record to say that $500 million would be enough to get “us through the first few months,” presumably of a primary. An unnamed Democratic operative said to have knowledge of the plan struck a similar tone when he helpfully pointed out that all that cash would be “enough to buy up all the TV ad inventory in the seven or eight states that really matter in a primary.” Both sources sound far more interested in how Bloomberg would use the cash to help himself in the primaries than in how he would use it to help someone else win the general election.
Perhaps more tellingly, though, is that Bloomberg stands to benefit so much from the timing of this story. The promised investment produces a sheen of selflessness since Bloomberg is officially on the sidelines of the campaign. But it would have looked a whole lot different if the first time voters learned of it was by finding out that Bloomberg was planning the largest self-funded presidential campaign in U.S. history. In contrast, he would have looked far more generous if he would have unveiled his $500 million plan after deciding not to run.
Bloomberg’s personal fortune (estimate: $56 billion) would buy him entry into the top tier of candidates, but it would also double as a liability in a party that has grown increasingly skeptical, and occasionally hostile, to billionaires. By making it known now that he plans to spend so much regardless of whether he runs, Bloomberg has conveniently laid the groundwork to help justify spending all that cash on himself. The line between altruistic and self-serving spending is often blurry, but in the event Bloomberg does run, he’s made that line even harder to find.