Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg: A Tale of Two Billionaire 2020 Democrats

As per usual, Saturday Night Live spoofed the most recent Democratic debate in a cold open sketch last weekend. During the standard candidate introductions, though,  moderator Judy Woodruff (played by Heidi Gardner) observed that billionaire Tom Steyer wasn’t on the stage; instead, taking his place was the other billionaire seeking the Democratic nomination, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (with Fred Arnisen reprising the role).

Gardner’s Woodruff was understandably confused — Bloomberg hasn’t qualified for a single debate, in neither our reality nor SNL‘s. Bloomberg’s justification? A “classic billionaire switcheroo.” Viewers wouldn’t know the difference.

As cliché as it may be, Saturday Night Live hit the nail on the head, because the two ultra-rich Democrats have had a middling, if not somewhat similar, impact on the primary thus far.

To be fair, both men entered much later than the rest of the field: Steyer, a well-established Democratic megadonor, joined in July, and Bloomberg jumped in late last month. Nevertheless, each has made a dent in the polls. Based on aggregates from FiveThirtyEight, The Economist, and RealClearPolitics, Bloomberg averages between 5%–7% nationally. Steyer, on the other hand, hovers around a much lower 1.5%.

These numbers are obviously nowhere near dominant enough to win the nomination, especially given that the Iowa caucuses are now just weeks away. But the stories of Steyer and Bloomberg don’t end at the toplines.

Starting off, the most prominent similarity between them lies in the use of their personal fortunes to bankroll their entire presidential campaigns. No, really.

Recent data from FiveThirtyEight suggests the pair of billionaires is running laps around the rest of the field when it comes to advertising: out of an estimated $160 million spent by Democratic hopefuls cumulatively, Bloomberg has chipped in $80 million, and Steyer $59 million. For those keeping track at home, this means two candidates account for almost 87% of all advertisements purchased. 

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Even more remarkable is that Bloomberg’s funding his campaign without contributions, one of the reasons he has yet to step foot on the debate stage (interestingly, even his OpenSecrets page leads to a broken link). Steyer, on the other hand, does accept donations, although their influence pales in comparison to that of his personal spending.

And what are they getting for it?

At first glance, despite polling much lower than Bloomberg nationally, it appears Steyer has seen a greater return on his investment. In an interview with Edward-Isaac Dovere of The Atlantic conducted soon after Steyer launched his campaign, the billionaire investor outlined what he considered to be the key issues of the 2020 campaign, including impeachment (before it was the focal point it is today) and climate change. Indeed, prior to throwing his hat into the ring, he launched separate advocacy groups focused on each.

In this regard, Steyer’s achieving his mission pretty admirably: the president was impeached after all, though not because of anything Steyer did. Additionally, that he managed to receive enough qualifying polls for the December debate — when candidates like Cory Booker, Julián Castro, and Tulsi Gabbard did not — means his advertising gamble paid off to some degree.

This largely has to do with where Steyer spends his money; the lion’s share of it has gone to early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. As a result, his 1.5% national support is over two times, and sometimes three times, higher here — a November Morning Consult early-state survey had him as high as 7%.

Yet, Steyer’s reputation among voters remains up in the air. His name recognition has barely budged: upon entering the race, around two-thirds of Democrats didn’t know who he was or had no opinion of him, a number currently sitting at just under 50%. Furthermore, based on polling specific to the matter, he has received lukewarm viewer response after all three debates in which he was a participant.

For Bloomberg, the data tells a similar, if not more grim, story. Even before he entered the race, there didn’t seem to be much of an appetite for his candidacy, with a late-October Fox News national poll finding 32% of Democrats “would never consider [voting] for him.”

On top of this, his $80 million advertisement budget doesn’t appear to be winning much support. A December national survey from Suffolk University and USA Today confirms, of the 58% of Democrats who had seen Bloomberg’s ads, only 35% thought they were “very” or “somewhat convincing,” while 59% deemed them “not very” or “not at all convincing.”

In Iowa, a November Monmouth University poll found Bloomberg’s net favorability at -31%; apart from Tulsi Gabbard’s -17%, every other Democrat had at least +15% net favorability. Some of this can be attributed to his decision to skip campaigning here and the other early states, but it all boils down to a massively unpopular presidential candidate.

For both Steyer and Bloomberg, campaigns for president were bound to be an uphill battle, as neither had the strongest traditional bona fides going in. And presently, their political decision-making — such as where to focus and how to fund —  only makes the mountain higher.

That’s not to say their time on the campaign trail has been all for naught, evident in Steyer’s back-to-back-to-back debate qualifications and Bloomberg’s rise in national polls. If anything, their candidacies highlight the limits of self-funded campaigns.

In the aforementioned Saturday Night Live debate sketch, Arnisen’s Bloomberg acknowledged he got on the fictitious stage by buying out the event’s sponsor for $30 million. Though satirical, the sentiment holds true: money can only get you so far in politics.

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