Is it possible to buy a US presidency? Americans will soon find out thanks to the billionaire former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, analysts say.
Unprecedented is the only way to describe Bloomberg’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. By late February, he had spent more than $500m of his personal fortune, estimated to be more than $60bn, on television and digital advertising hyping himself as the only candidate who can beat President Donald Trump in the November general election.
“The most noteworthy thing about his presidential run is the extraordinary amount of money he is spending,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of the governance studies programme at The Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.
“We’ve never seen that kind of spending from any candidate in the past. So everybody is wondering, is it possible to buy an election? What does all that money mean?”
But West told Al Jazeera that ads alone are not going to decide how people vote. “They also watch debate performances and they read news media stories, and with his poor [debate] performance … right now, that is overriding whatever benefit he was trying to gain from advertising.”
Bloomberg’s campaign caught fire in January on the back of his advertising. The support, however, cratered after his first appearance in a debate with his fellow Democrats. His performance was, to put it mildly, savaged. An “unconvincing performance”, they called it. A “debacle”. A “very bad night”.
Regardless, Bloomberg remained near the top in recent polls even after the debate.
The 78-year-old, who entered the presidential race in late November and skipped the early primaries, touted his record as a business tycoon and his steely resolve to beat Donald Trump as the centrepieces of his campaign. “There’s only one Democrat who can beat Donald Trump,” he says on his website.
The philanthropic side of Bloomberg, who has given away billions of dollars, made good use of the goodwill those handouts engendered and amassed several endorsements from mayors, representatives and state governors, as well as a handful of celebrities.
“What some Democrats like about him is that he is a pragmatic problem-solver, so not as ideological in the way that Bernie Sanders is, but as mayor, he tried to solve problems and was considered to be a strong leader,” West said.
Critics have raised concerns though that his record as mayor – and the policies he championed there, including “broken windows” policing and cuts to the public sector – run in opposition to the Democratic Party’s values.
Allegations that he regularly made sexist and misogynistic comments over his decades-long career have also raised serious questions about his candidacy and his ability to bring the Democratic base over to his side.
“His problems now lie in regard to race and gender,” said West.
Bloomberg grew up outside of Boston. His father was a bookkeeper, and after he died, his mother worked as a secretary, Bloomberg says on his campaign website. He earned an undergraduate degree from John Hopkins University and later an MBA from Harvard Business School.
He started his own company in 1981 after he was laid off by Wall Street investment firm Salomon Brothers, a moment that he has since said “would define the rest of his life”. That company, Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, could now be worth as much as $60bn, according to a recent estimate. Forbes believed last year that Bloomberg’s own net worth was $61.9bn.
Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York in 2002 and was re-elected twice, holding the position for over a decade until 2013. He joined the Republican Party in 2001 in order to launch his inaugural mayoral campaign and in 2004 he endorsed incumbent Republican President George W Bush. Three years later, he left the GOP to become an independent.
In June 2018, Bloomberg wrote in defence of bipartisanship and said he would support Democrats as they sought to regain control of the US House of Representatives because Republicans had failed “to prove they could govern responsibly”.
He formally registered as a Democrat in October 2018 as he weighed his presidential run. “Today, I have re-registered as a Democrat – I had been a member for most of my life – because we need Democrats to provide the checks and balance our nation so badly needs,” Bloomberg wrote in an Instagram post.
Bloomberg has promised to reverse the Trump administration’s tax cuts for wealthy Americans, and to impose a 5 percent surtax on taxpayers who earn more than five million dollars annually.
In January, he released the broad strokes of his “All-In Economy” plan, promising to bolster employment-training programmes and create jobs. “I know how to create jobs and build businesses, not because I played a business leader on a TV show,” Bloomberg said in a jab at Trump, who starred in the reality show, The Apprentice, “but because I’ve actually been one in real life.”
He has also touted his record on gun control and immigration reform, as well as a plan to combat climate change that includes transitioning towards clean energy sources in transportation, home heating, and power generation, and a promise to re-join the Paris Agreement.
Bloomberg finished last on the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund’s presidential scorecard, however. “Bloomberg’s climate plan contains almost no bold executive actions, firm targets to curb greenhouse pollution, or spending to confront the emergency,” the group’s climate director, Kassie Siegel, said in a statement.
Bloomberg continues to face criticism for overseeing a police programme in which African Americans and other people of colour were disproportionately stopped and interrogated by New York police without cause.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, a civil liberties advocacy group, found that in 2011, at the height of stop-and-frisk and under Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor, more than 685,000 people were stopped. Fifty-three percent of those stopped were black and 34 percent were Latinx, the group said.
He apologised for stop-and-frisk in a November speech at a black church in Brooklyn. “I can’t change history,” Bloomberg said, according to The Associated Press news agency. “However, today, I want you to know that I realise back then I was wrong.”
Howard Henderson, founding director of the Center for Justice Research and professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University, said many people feel that his apology was insufficient. The policy “victimised thousands of black and brown citizens”, Henderson said, and “impacted whole communities”.
“It’s not going to be enough for him just to apologise. He’s got to devise a plan that he’s going to repair the damages that were caused by those policies,” Henderson told Al Jazeera.
Criminal justice reform also touches on poverty, affordable housing and healthcare, Henderson said, and the Democratic nominee will need to address those issues, too. In Bloomberg’s case, he will also need to show voters that he can understand working-class and rural Americans.
“The question is, does he understand rural America? … Does he have advisers who can keep him abreast of that population, because a lot of Americans live in those spaces and they want to be heard,” said Henderson.
“He’s got to be able to deal with poverty and sometimes, that’s difficult from his vantage point.”