Michael Bloomberg, who is worth $53 billion—give or take a billion, depending on the market—doesn’t need donations to his brand-new presidential campaign. He could shatter all-time presidential campaign spending records by orders of magnitude and still have enough personal money left over to purchase anything for sale on Earth. But even if someone wanted to help him out, he won’t accept donations, of any size, from anyone else, and he wields that fact as a badge of honor.
“He has never taken a political contribution in his life. He is not about to start,” Bloomberg’s top adviser, Howard Wolfson, told the Associated Press. “He cannot be bought.”
This isn’t really how Democratic primary voters think about corruption in the campaign finance system, or how someone familiar with Democratic primary voters would speak about it. The corruption stems from large contributions from wealthy interests who then expect favors in return. The antidote is not through a billionaire self-funding a campaign, but through candidates building broad, grassroots small-dollar funding bases.
Wolfson added, further, that this makes Bloomberg “wholly independent of special interests.” But what really separates Bloomberg from his competitors—or, really, any presidential campaign before it—is its indifference to “interests” altogether.
Michael Bloomberg may be running for president, but he’s not engaging in anything that resembles politics as we know it. He is not organizing in early states or trying to cultivate grassroots energy. He’s not building coalitions, he’s not competing in early trial heats, and he’s not participating in debates. He is, instead, using his unlimited resources to determine if there’s a price point at which a national election can be won without having to participate in politics.
Bloomberg’s metaphysical contempt for other people’s money in politics, that is, reflects his attitude toward other people in politics. He has entered the race, in part, because “special interests,” as he defines them, have put both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—who have received donations from millions of individual donors—in competitive positions for the Democratic presidential nomination. And he is running a campaign strategy that intentionally keeps those masses of special interests at an arm’s length. Bloomberg is skipping the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, where candidates are vetted by their ability to generate enthusiasm, organize, and build broad, winning coalitions. He cannot compete in this, so he plans to buy his way beyond it.
A campaign like Bloomberg’s looks at grassroots enthusiasm as the central threat to Democrats’ ability to win the presidency. Enthusiasm over a candidate’s message might lead voters to vote based on what they want, rather than choosing the safest course towards defeating Donald Trump, which Michael Bloomberg presumes to be nominating Michael Bloomberg. His opening, then, is to hope that the enthusiasts cancel each other out in the first four states, with no clear frontrunner having emerged heading into Super Tuesday. By then, he will have spent potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads in the next wave of states, where other candidates, competing in the old terms, have barely spent a dime. The less primary voters have formed a consensus around a candidate who’s gotten their hopes up, the better for Bloomberg’s candidacy.
The candidates trying to build political consensus the normal way haven’t been shy about sharing their opinions of Bloomberg’s scheme. Sanders has described Bloomberg’s strategy as an effort to “circumvent the political process,” while Warren has said that Bloomberg is “making a bet about democracy in 2020—he doesn’t need people, he only needs bags and bags of money.”
In lieu of participating in what one might call politics, where interests are solicited and acted upon, Bloomberg is paying to convert the nation’s airwaves into a hypnotism operation benefitting him. Even Donald Trump, who had little interest in the nuts and bolts of traditional campaigning, was willing to supplement his rallies with appearances on the debate stage, and to try to identify a constituency. Bloomberg imagines himself to be the candidate for everyone—and never for anyone in particular.