Mike Bloomberg has grown used to making returns on his political investments that he would never have tolerated while building his financial data empire.
The billionaire former New York mayor’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination this spring consumed more than $1bn of his fortune, but he won just one caucus, in American Samoa.
Mr Bloomberg’s adopted party had higher hopes when he promised to spend $100m to support Joe Biden’s general election campaign in Florida. Yet the key state voted again for Donald Trump.
Mr Bloomberg was just one factor in what seemed a commanding financial advantage for Democrats in 2020, driven by grassroots “fundraging” from individuals determined to defeat Mr Trump. But in contests across the country, there was little connection between the amount of money raised and the number of votes secured.
In South Carolina’s Senate race, Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison raised $39.3m more than Lindsey Graham, the Republican incumbent. Yet Mr Graham prevailed, as did Republican senators such as Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Susan Collins in Maine and Joni Ernst in Iowa who had been equally outgunned.
Democrats’ hopes that their fundraising advantage would help them turn Texas blue or expand their majority in the House of Representatives were similarly dashed.
Kevin Sheekey, a senior adviser to Mr Bloomberg, insisted that his money had been well spent. It had freed up Democratic resources elsewhere and forced the Trump campaign to spend 50 per cent more in Florida than in the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, Mr Sheekey wrote on Friday.
But political spending experts said that as more money pours into US elections, the sums above the threshold candidates need to be competitive are having less effect than expected.
Jaime Harrison raised almost $109m on his Senatorial campaign
Lindsey Graham raised $39m less than his Democratic opponent — and won
“Money cannot buy votes. If it did, Michael Bloomberg would have been the [Democrats’] nominee,” said Michael Cornfield, research director of George Washington University’s Global Center for Political Management. “Money buys attention and attention is not nothing in this information-besotted world. But it’s a necessary, not a sufficient, condition to get votes.”
Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist at the Democratic think-tank Third Way, echoed that sentiment, saying: “If you don’t have money, you’re likely to lose, but if you do have money you’re not certain to win.”
Messaging mattered more than money, he argued, saying that Democrats had lost down-ballot races in Republican leaning districts not because they had been unable to deploy the funds raised effectively, but because they were unable to withstand Republican attacks that their candidates were “socialist” or “anti-fracking”.
“The problem was not that our candidates were under-resourced. The problem is that in red and purple states and districts, the Democratic brand still isn’t very strong.”
The “nationalisation” of local races, in which nationwide fundraising platforms such as ActBlue steer small-dollar donations to key races, may also have created a misleading impression of local enthusiasm, said Brendan Glavin, senior data analyst at the Campaign Finance Institute.
“You’re never going to run into a candidate that’s going to tell you that they don’t need any more money,” he said, “but national money is not going to guarantee you that the voters are going to pick you.”
Some Democrats are already questioning how the party allocated its money, arguing that it was a mistake to spend less than the Trump campaign on digital platforms such as Facebook.
Democrat Amy McGrath raised more than $90m in her Senate bid in Kentucky
Veteran Republican Mitch McConnell raised $51m and held on to his seat
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the leftwing New York congresswoman, tweeted on Friday that many Democratic candidates had “awful execution” in their digital advertising. But she also argued that the party needed to ask whether too many candidates had given up on the low-budget strategy of knocking on doors.
“I think there’s going to be a big debate among Democrats on this,” Dr Cornfield said. “We have two decades worth of studies . . . that have clearly established that the best way to get people to vote is go talk to them face to face, not through Zoom. Anyone who’s spent time on Zoom knows that it’s a pale substitute in terms of making a personal connection.”
Both parties will quickly need to put the fundraising lessons they learned from last week’s results into action, as they face the prospect of two run-off elections for Georgia’s Senate seats in January. With control of the Senate on the line, Mr Glavin said: “I would expect enormous sums of money in both those races.”
The questionable returns on some donors’ 2020 investments were unlikely to deter them in future elections, he added, because the results have been so close: “That will be part of the appeal, that every bit counts.”
Additional reporting by Brooke Fox