They entered the race late, but the two billionaires seeking the Democratic nomination are making up for lost time.
Together, Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg have poured nearly $200 million into television and digital advertising alone, with the former New York mayor spending an unprecedented $120 million in the roughly three weeks since he joined the presidential race. That’s more than double the combined ad spending of every single nonbillionaire in the Democratic field this year.
“We’ve never seen spending like this in a presidential race,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican political strategist who worked as a consultant for Bloomberg’s mayoral bids in New York. “He has a limitless budget.”
The question isn’t whether anyone else will come close to matching Bloomberg's or Steyer’s ad spending. Rather, it’s whether all that spending is making any difference.
At present, the two remain mired in single digits in the polls. Steyer isn’t spending at the same stratospheric levels as Bloomberg, yet with $83 million in ad buys so far, he’s still far outpacing everyone other than his fellow billionaire. The next highest spender on ads is Pete Buttigieg at $19 million.
Unlike Bloomberg, who is attempting to jump-start his campaign on Super Tuesday in March, Steyer is focused on the four early voting states. He has spent nearly $37 million in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire — much of it on digital ads. Since joining the race in July, he’s more than doubled the combined ad spending of Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the early states.
In South Carolina, Steyer has plowed extensive resources into television spots and a flurry of mail while building up a sizable ground game. His 60-person team in South Carolina is the largest of his four state operations. He’s beginning to see some results: According to the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, Steyer is now in 5th place there with 5 percent, 1 percentage point behind Buttigieg.
Just as important, he’s polling at 4 percent among black voters, who make up more than half the Democratic electorate in South Carolina. That places him slightly ahead of Sen. Cory Booker, who‘s made the state a focus, and Buttigieg.
“For someone who’s come in as late as he did in the game, he’s doing impressively well in that regard,” said Kate Franch, chair of the Greenville Democratic Party in South Carolina. “And that’s relative to everyone who’s not Joe Biden.”
Bloomberg is spending in all 50 states but is targeting the big, delegate-rich Super Tuesday states that can make or break his campaign. He’s spent more than $13 million on advertising in California, which offers 416 delegates, the single biggest haul in the primary. He’s also spent more than $13 million each in Texas, another Super Tuesday mainstay, and Florida, which votes one week after Super Tuesday and offers 219 delegates.
Bloomberg is also swamping smaller markets like Wilmington, N.C., where his ads have run up to 36 times each day, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
Bloomberg has also shelled out an additional $13 million in Florida, which votes one week after Super Tuesday and offers 219 delegates.
“We’re running out of ways to describe [the ad expenditures] at this point,” said Nick Stapleton, vice president of analytics at Advertising Analytics, a television ad tracking firm. “It’s pretty difficult to make a comparison. ... You’re looking at one-third of Obama’s 2012 total [ad] spend through the general [election] in one month.”
Bloomberg is beginning to see incremental growth in national polls after his saturation-level spending. Since entering the race in mid-November, Bloomberg’s polling numbers have slowly climbed: In Monday’s Quinnipiac University national poll, he had his best showing yet, polling in fifth place at 7 percent.
Doug Wilson, a North Carolina-based political strategist, said he sees the former New York mayor’s advertisements “at least three times a day.”
“You still have to get a sizable portion of the African American vote to be able to be competitive but with him running ads as he has it has increased his numbers nationally,” Wilson said, referencing his growing standing in the polls.
Christian Heiens, a political marketer with Saber Communications, a right-leaning media buying agency, said he isn’t convinced Bloomberg and Steyer can continue to rise through their spending. He compared their bids with that of Jeb Bush, the former Florida GOP governor who in 2016 spent close to $55 million on advertisements in early primary states but underperformed before finishing fourth in South Carolina and quitting the race.
“After you see the same TV ad 10 times, it’s not going to have as big an impact,” Heiens continued. “And that’s not just in politics, that’s in anything in marketing.”
The rest of the Democratic field has also been critical of the billionaires’ spending, though for different reasons. Warren has accused Bloomberg and Steyer of trying to buy their paths to the nomination, while Biden and Andrew Yang have argued that the ad blitzes are more a waste of money than smart politics.
They’re not the only skeptics of how much Bloomberg and Steyer can accomplish with their saturation-level spending.
“I don’t sell anybody short, but rich white billionaires don’t have any real appeal to black voters in the South,” said Brad Coker, a pollster with Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. “Billionaires have never really done well with Southern voters.”