In any other election year, it would have been major news when billionaire Tom Steyer dropped out of the Democratic primary campaign on February 29, 2020.
After all, he had just spent $267 million of his personal wealth on a losing effort, according to Center for Responsive Politics. Normally, that would have been the most any candidate had ever plowed into their campaign in US history. Yet people barely talked about Steyer’s failed investment.
In a way, he was like the sea monster in “Gorgo,” a 1961 British science fiction film. While most of the movie was about the 65-foot-tall beast terrorizing the Irish sea coast and England, we learned at the end that Gorgo actually was a baby!
In this year’s race, the role of Gorgo’s 200-foot tall mom went to an even bigger billionaire- Mike Bloomberg.
Bloomberg spent $935 million- over three times more than Steyer- on another losing effort in the Democratic primary since he too recently withdrew from the race.
By comparison, Presidential Donald Trump, another billionaire, sank just $66.1 million of his own money into his successful 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton.
Don’t forget, though, that Trump harnessed his celebrity status to draw nearly $5.6 billion in free media during his run for president, according to mediaQuant, an ad tracking firm. That all-time record makes even Bloomberg’s self-funding figure look puny.
Despite all the big bucks being thrown around by some candidates today, it wasn’t that long ago (2000) when former Goldman Sachs head Jon Corzine stunned the nation by spending $60.2 million on his successful U.S. Senate race. In today’s dollars, the same campaign would cost $90 million.
What’s most mind-boggling about Bloomberg’s spending is that he did it in just 100 days. Corzine’s spending involved the full primary and general elections.
Bloomberg’s spending makes Corzine and other, more recent New Jersey self-funders, look like pikers.
Bloomberg paid $45 million to just one firm for digital advertising. That was more than the $36.8 million businessman Bob Hugin personally invested in his unsuccessful 2018 U.S. Senate bid in the Garden State.
Bloomberg also spent $30 million just on direct mail during his 100-day run. That is $7 million more than the $22.5 million Governor Phil Murphy spent from his own wallet on a few years of promotional advertising during the pre-primary and primary periods of his victorious 2017 campaign.
The most self-financing ever done by a New Jersey resident on a presidential campaign was the $37.4 million by Steve Forbes in 1996- an amount equal to $61 million today.
Bloomberg spent 15 times more.
Joe Donohue is the deputy executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. For more information on the history of self-financed campaigns in New Jersey, see “White Paper No. 26- Legislative Elections 2013: Big Spending, Little Change Plus A History of Self-financing by Legislators and Others” https://www.elec.nj.gov/aboutelec/whitepapers.htm.