This week has brought a flurry of coverage of Michael Bloomberg’s history and record. The media tycoon and former New York mayor has rarely been reticent about his personal and political opinions, whether speaking to the news media or holding forth at various forums. As the onetime Republican escalates his late-entry campaign for the Democratic nomination, his enthusiasm for racist police tactics, tolerance for sexual misconduct, and genteel authoritarian outlook have cycled back into the news.
It would seem to be a damning set of facts, by normal Democratic Party standards: Bloomberg and his organizations have been defendants in almost 40 sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuits. He has cast doubt on the #MeToo movement, saying people should let the legal system decide if someone is guilty of sexual misconduct. In 2008, he said the end of redlining was to blame for the housing crisis. Under his mayoral administration, law enforcement in New York used the city’s mosques and public spaces as a laboratory for surveillance and predictive policing technology in counterterrorism, and he has defended this practice in various ways over the years. In 2013, he said that police officers deploying stop and frisk—a tactic that was being used to racially profile and harass Black and brown teens en masse—were “disproportionately stop[ping] whites too much and minorities too little.” The following year, Bloomberg said he hoped the NSA was “reading every email.” And, the year after that, he defended stop and frisk once more while at the Aspen Institute. “Ninety-five percent of murders, murderers, and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take a description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops,” he said in a leaked video. “They are male, minorities, 16 to 25.”
But even as this material resurfaced, a Monday Quinnipiac poll showed that Black voter support for Bloomberg, by measure of this one poll, was within 5 percentage points of former Vice President Joe Biden’s. A second poll in Florida showed Bloomberg leading in the state. A further breakdown showed Bloomberg is trailing Biden among Black voters and ahead of him in Hispanic support.
The combination of bad news and good polls for Bloomberg has left many progressive pundits and journalists confused. This spawned days of frantic tweet threads and mental gymnastics as folks tried to make sense of it all: How could Black voters support this guy? Is the progressive analytical machine dead? Has it always been wrong?
Such bewilderment is par for the course when the mainstream media discusses Black voters. But three Democratic strategists told Slate that this is less indicative of voter values and more a matter of a multibillionaire using his wealth to achieve name recognition within Black communities—not the power of persuasion but, maybe more alarmingly, the power of pure saturation.
Name recognition is an old electoral phenomenon, explained Jessica Byrd, the founder of Three Point Strategies. “There are long-standing leaders in American politics who lean on name recognition because they have a record that they believe in,” she said. “But what Bloomberg has done is buy name recognition.”
Bloomberg has spent more than $350 million of his own money on campaign advertisements—including television slots and Facebook ads, and paying meme influencers to drop sponsored content on Instagram—and has heavily invested in building a huge staff of on-the-ground political operatives. Along with fellow billionaire Tom Steyer, he’s the one of two candidates with the resources available to blast the airwaves, and his poll numbers are going to show progress based on that fact, according to Quentin James, a co-founder of the Collective PAC.
Appeals to name recognition have historically meant that the national public was familiar or comfortable with a candidate and their record, as was the case with Joe Biden entering the race this time around. But Bloomberg’s advertisements chiefly send the message that Michael Bloomberg has the financial power to buy a lot of ads. “Black voters are concerned, No. 1, with who can beat Donald Trump. And when you look at Michael Bloomberg on his face, he’s a candidate who has the resources to go toe to toe,” said James. “That’s an attractive option for Black voters.”
Jarrod Loadholt, a Democratic strategist, hears from Black voters and elected officials across the South—including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Alabama—that the Bloomberg ads are everywhere. And the themes of the ads appear to resonate in part because the former mayor, one of the two people on television the most, seems to hate Trump the most. Such messaging reflects the pragmatism of many Black voters.
“For most Democratic voters, I’d say that beating President Trump takes precedence over everything else, including problematic aspects of a candidate’s record or the perception that a candidate is ‘buying’ the election,” said Loadholt. “That’s not a value judgment; that’s an observation based on what I’m getting from Black, Southern voters and Black elected officials.”
I asked my own grandmother, a Black woman in rural North Carolina, how many Bloomberg ads she’s seen. “I can’t count them. He on there all the time,” she said. Nana added that she was a fan of the messaging, even though she intends to vote for Biden in the state’s primary.
“You’re watching The Haves and the Have Nots, and Michael Bloomberg was just on your television 16 times,” added Loadholt. “It’s that many ads, and after a while, it starts to resonate.”
None of this necessarily points to Bloomberg having a sharper strategy or doing better organizing than any other candidate, nor does it say voters know anything about his record outside of what he’s capable of putting in front of them. But it does reflect what can be achieved through sheer quantity of political marketing.
And it allows Bloomberg to skip over the usual primary process. His late entry into the race meant he missed the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and he will miss Nevada and South Carolina as well. He has not appeared in any debates so far—although the Democratic National Committee’s decision to stop using a campaign’s number of individual donors as a qualifying requirement means that his self-funded candidacy is now eligible to participate.
“He knows that his money, in this structural electoral system, is more powerful than one person and one vote,” said Byrd. “It’s not that hard to understand, and we’re watching the rigging happen, and in the postmortems of this election, we’ll all forget that we had a chance to call this what it was and we didn’t, and I find that baffling.
“Skipping primary states is voter suppression; buying an election is voter suppression. I mean, his whole strategy is voter suppression,” she added.
James elaborated on the distorting effects of billionaires buying their way into political viability. He noted that 2018 was a historic year for candidates of color: The most diverse Congress in history was elected, and two Black gubernatorial candidates came very close to winning their races. Black lieutenant governors took office in Illinois and Wisconsin, as did Black attorneys general in Nevada, Illinois, and New York.
The 2020 presidential campaign seemed at first as if it would continue that pattern. But Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris were knocked out before Iowa because of funding issues. They and other early-exiting candidates had spent their money specifically chasing the DNC’s polling and donor-number requirements, trying to hold onto their places on the debate stage—and now, with Bloomberg advertising his way to a high-polling profile and the DNC changing the donor rules, the self-funded mogul can claim the place they had to vacate. It conveys to Black politicians and voters, James said, that there’s still a ceiling that can only be broken if you have the money to do so.
“What this says to Black people is that unless you’re worth, 10, 20, 100 million dollars or even $1 billion, you definitely aren’t viable to run for president,” he said.