Michael Bloomberg has made up for his late entry into the Democratic presidential race with an advertising spending spree of nearly half a billion dollars that has caught more conventional campaigns off-guard.
The self-made billionaire and former mayor of New York City has surged to 19 per cent support in a national poll, up from only 4 per cent in December. His strong showing, supported by a flush self-funded campaign, has earned him a spot in Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas, which will put him head to head with the other candidates for the first time.
“Advertising works,” said Brian Wieser, president of business intelligence for GroupM, the media buying agency owned by WPP. “That’s the obvious, single biggest takeaway.”
Mr Bloomberg’s spending dwarfs any of his rivals with a serious shot at the ticket, prompting other candidates to accuse him of trying to buy the election.
“This is a stark difference from someone who can just come in and plop down a cheque and buy a bunch of ads,” said Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator running for the Democratic nomination. “I think people are going to see through it.”
Voters seem less bothered. Mr Bloomberg, who is worth an estimated $62bn, came in second place to Bernie Sanders in a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll of Democratic voters nationwide, released on Tuesday. That puts him ahead of rivals Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Ms Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg.
During this year’s Super Bowl — the most expensive airtime in the US — a 60-second Bloomberg campaign advert that ran moments before the second-half kick-off cost an estimated $10m.
The only other candidate to spend that much money on a Super Bowl ad was Donald Trump. The US president spent $65m less for his entire 2016 presidential campaign than the $408m Mr Bloomberg has shelled out in his first four months.
Mr Bloomberg has flipped traditional campaign spending on its head. Unfettered by fundraising constraints, he has bypassed the earliest-voting states to cast his eye on big, populous states where he can splash out in proportion to the number of delegates on offer.
While Mr Sanders and Mr Buttigieg each devoted more than $10m to advertising in Iowa, the first state to hold a primary — where they finished neck-and-neck among Democratic candidates — Mr Bloomberg spent a measly $160.
Iowa and New Hampshire’s early contests only offer a small number delegates to support a candidate’s nomination at the party convention in July, but campaigns usually focus on spending there because early wins can help build momentum.
The Bloomberg campaign has already forked out $147m on the 14 states that hold primaries on March 3, often called Super Tuesday, when 1,357 delegates are up for grabs. The other candidates have spent a combined $46m on Super Tuesday states so far.
His broadcast advertising budget has focused on California — a major prize with its 415 delegates — Texas, Florida and New York, according to data compiled by Advertising Analytics.
In California, Mr Bloomberg has spent almost $50m so far, far more than any candidate — although he has only captured 4 per cent support in the state, according to an average of polls from Real Clear Politics.
New Jersey is a notable exception. It ranks in the top 10 states for number of delegates, yet Mr Bloomberg has only devoted $73,000 to ads there. It is possible he hopes to have already secured the 1,990 delegates needed to win the nomination prior to the state’s primary — which falls on the last day of the Democratic race.
The Bloomberg campaign’s extravagance does not stop at advertising. Millions also went to fund private jet travel, pricey rent at the campaign’s headquarters in Manhattan’s Times Square, high-powered consultants and Apple laptops for staff.
In December, Bloomberg’s campaign paid nearly $14,000 to Cowboy Catering, a New York deli, and $16,000 to JL Sushi restaurant. In November and December, it spent more than $660,000 on Apple computers, according to FEC filings.
In addition to television, the 78-year-old is splashing cash on less traditional forms of advertising such as Instagram influencers. Dozens of sponsored adverts for Mr Bloomberg have recently appeared on popular meme accounts like @kalesalad, @grapejuiceboys and @mytherapistsays.
“Hello Juice Boys,” an Instagram message from Mr Bloomberg begins. “Can you post an original meme to make me look cool for the upcoming Democratic primary?” A screenshot of the exchange was posted on the Instagram account @grapejuiceboys, with a disclosure: Paid for by Mike Bloomberg.
Produced by Adrienne Klasa. Data by John Burn-Murdoch.