What Bloomberg's Money Can Buy

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Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s big-spending foray into the presidential race is getting noticed by millions of Americans. You can’t miss his seemingly ubiquitous television advertising, especially in states unaccustomed to seeing campaign commercials in primary season.

But a tiny, yet knowing, subsection of the public was captivated for an entirely different reason just days before Bloomberg spent $10 million to advertise during the Super Bowl. His year-end campaign finance report showed a free-spending organization that was met with a mix of disbelief and jealousy by political operatives throughout the country.

Most seasoned campaign workers and consultants can regale you with tales of boot-strapped campaigns, the proverbial uphill-both-ways-to-school story. Tales of campaign workers sleeping in the office and living off donated candy and booze are the stuff of lore.

While it may sound quaint in an era of super PACs and self-funders, the vast majority of campaigns today are still largely run on shoestring budgets. Ten grand for sushi you say? How about 10 bucks for pizza and we all chip in for the beer? An apartment in Midtown? How do you feel about staying in the basement of the candidate’s house? 

Don’t get me wrong -- this is not passing judgment on a candidate or anyone working for wealthy candidates willing to spend their own money to get elected. As someone who toiled on several political campaigns, I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing both the well-funded and the not-so-well-funded.

While the political graveyard is littered with rich folks who wasted significant portions of their fortunes, Bloomberg is a striking reminder of just how far money can get you in politics. It’s not just for buying television ads, though that certainly goes a long way. Having money for the day-to-day operations inside a campaign is a game changer. 

In 2014, while working for billionaire candidate Bruce Rauner’s gubernatorial campaign, we had a $10 million field budget that included 40 offices across Illinois and 90 paid staffers. That doesn’t even come close to the millions he doled out for TV advertising.

Right now, most congressional campaigns throughout the country are surviving with a staff of one or two people dividing up the jobs of campaign manager, press secretary, field organizer, fundraiser, and front office assistant. 

Did I mention the pay? Probably best for everyone if I don’t. While the Bloomberg campaign spent $250,000 on office furniture for its headquarters, some campaigns blast their entire email list asking (begging) for furniture donations so volunteers have a place to sit and make calls.

A friend who is still working regularly in politics explained the heated debate he had with a candidate in 2018 as to whether to even hire a campaign manager. It came down to a question of spending money on day-to-day operations versus spending on voter contact via mail or digital advertising.

The candidate chose the manager – and lost his race. That’s not saying the candidate made the wrong decision, but these are the kinds of choices most campaigns face on a daily basis. Not dissimilar to our normal, everyday lives, political campaigns are mostly about trying to do a lot with minimal resources.

I don’t mean to pick on Mike Bloomberg. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, to spend large sums of personal wealth to get elected.  The difference from the viewpoint of most political types is the amount and rate at which he is doing it.

If you are one of the political operatives who get to experience this kind of campaign, make the most of it because most likely your next one won’t be so endowed of resources. You might convince yourself that it doesn’t make that much difference, but ask anyone who has gone from a well-funded campaign to one that is fighting for every penny. As one operative said, it’s kind of like getting bumped from first class to the last seat of coach.

Sure, you still arrive at the same time, but with a nagging pain in your lower back minus the free drinks. The guy in first class? He’s rested, primed, and ready to take on the world.

Lance Trover is a political and corporate communications consultant. 

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