NEW YORK: Can Michael Bloomberg, one of the world’s richest men, become America’s president because of his wealth? It certainly raises the stakes, and is set to fuel the debate about money in US elections.
The ex-New York mayor boasts a personal fortune of more than $50 billion. A key advisor said Saturday Bloomberg would spend “whatever it takes” to beat Donald Trump next year.
Unlike in many European countries, there is no limit in the United States to the amount of money candidates can spend, notes Jacob Neiheisel, associate professor of political science at the University at Buffalo.
US law forbids an individual from giving a candidate more than $2,800 but nothing prevents a candidate spending his own fortune on the campaign. That benefits Bloomberg and fellow billionaire Tom Steyer, another Democratic candidate.
Those who are not rich can still spend hundreds of millions of dollars through so-called “super PACs” — political action committees allowed to raise unlimited sums for election campaigns, provided they don’t coordinate directly with the candidates.
The main candidates prefer to opt out of a public funding program, which entitles them to federal funds for their campaign but limits their spending.
That means they have to “raise a lot of money” to pay their teams and buy commercials, says Ester Fuchs, political science professor at Columbia University and former adviser to Bloomberg.
Bloomberg, who officially declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination on Sunday (November 24), has already been using his wealth to break records.
Last week, he bought $33.5 million worth of advertising spots on television in 20 states, breaking the previous high of $25 million spent by Barack Obama in 2012, according to Advertising Analytics, which tracks spending on political ads.
Bloomberg also previously announced he would spend $100 million on online ads targeting Trump.
The billionaire co-founder of the financial information company that bears his name argues that by taking advantage of his personal fortune, he frees himself from the influence of lobby groups, whose influence on candidates is much decried.
Trump used the same argument when he was running in 2015 and 2016. He was the first billionaire to run for the White House and initially said he would finance his own campaign so that he would not owe anything to anyone.
Although he spent $66 million out of his own pocket, he ended up accepting numerous contributions, including from large donors, says Brendan Fischer of Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan body that works to reduce the influence of money in politics.
Left-wing candidates for the Democratic nomination Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders regularly denounce the influence of billionaires and want to tax their fortunes to finance universal healthcare programs and student debt forgiveness plans.
They have already accused Bloomberg of wanting to “buy the election.”
It was first Sanders then Warren who made rejecting the contributions of lobbyists, often accused of “corrupting” American democracy, part of their pitch at the stump.
“It appears those pledges are resonating with voters,” said Fischer.
Both candidates try to compensate by constantly asking their supporters for contributions. At the end of September, they were among the leading fundraisers with about $25 million each.
The Democratic Party wants to encourage grassroots funding. To be eligible for the December 20 debate, candidates will have to prove that they have received contributions from at least 200,000 individual donors.
At least 800 of those donors must come from more than 20 states. Those who fail face the prospect of having to drop out of the race: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has implored his supporters to contribute so that his bid can continue.
By foregoing donations, Bloomberg seems to have excluded himself from these televised bouts ahead of the first primaries in February.
But he needn’t worry, according to Neiheisel, since his huge treasure chest of funds already makes him “immediately more viable” than some of the other candidates.
The late entry into the race of billionaires like Bloomberg could delay the emergence of a favorite among the 18 Democratic candidates, according to the experts.
Money is important but not enough by itself to swing the election, they note, recalling that Hillary Clinton lost to Trump after spending nearly $600 million, twice as much as him.
“It can’t be a stand-in for popular ideas and an inspiring candidacy but it is a necessary pre-condition,” said Fischer.