Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders wasted over $1.5 billion to lose the most expensive primary in history.
Bloomberg accounted for over $900 million in spending, Steyer for another $338 million, Warren for $111 million and Sanders for $163 million. Never had so much money been spent for so little purpose.
How was it possible for $1.5 billion in spending, targeted at a handful of primaries, to achieve so little?
Where did that $1.5 billion go?
Bloomberg blew over $500 million on TV ads. Steyer spent almost $175 million, and Sanders committed to $58 million. That included Bloomberg’s $11 million Super Bowl ad, and Steyer’s $2.9 million ‘Listen’ ad in California. At the height of the primary frenzy, television ads for Bloomberg and Steyer were everywhere. And yet, when the dust had settled, the two billionaires came away with nothing.
The over $700 million in TV ads made up much of that wasted $1.5 billion. The spending was driven by billionaires trying to build a brand. But the monotonous barrage annoyed as many voters as it won over.
Bloomberg proved two contradictory things: that a massive ad blitz backed by infinite money could make anyone into a competitor, and that it wouldn’t actually be enough to put him over the top.
The Bloomberg paradox embodied the power and impotence of money in this campaign cycle.
Advertising sells customers on a product. The product might be frozen pizza, a politician or a better way to clean your toilet, but the product has to fill a need that the customer has or thinks he does.
Michael Bloomberg wasted over $900 million because a short, awkward billionaire, militantly opposed to guns, but fiscally conservative, wasn’t an actual need that anyone outside American Samoa had.
Bloomberg wasted the most money demonstrating the problem with telling voters what they wanted.
What did Democrats want? Poll after poll made that very clear. They wanted someone to beat President Trump. They didn’t care about anything else. Despite countless polls, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick blew through over $60 million chasing an electorate looking for a black candidate.
They never found it.
Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris spent $160 million without ever finding their girl power electorate either.
And, most Democrats were not looking for an antiquated Castro fanboy to ramble on about corporations either. There were more of those Democrats. About a third of the party. Not enough.
The problem with the $1.5 billion was that it was chasing something Democrats didn’t want: a positive candidacy based on hope, progress, and a dash of identity politics. So many candidates were running to be Obama 2.0. But Democrats didn’t want Obama 2.0. That’s why they chose Biden 1.0 instead.
Democrats weren’t voting for something, but against someone. President Trump.
Biden is at 24% enthusiasm among his supporters. It’s the lowest number for the Democrats in 20 years. Democrats didn’t pick Biden because they love him, believe in him, or think he can put on his pants. They chose him for a number of stupid reasons. He was Obama’s VP. If you don’t pay attention to the words coming out of his mouth, he looks presidential. He won South Carolina. He’s not Bernie.
That last one was important.
Faced with a choice between Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, or Joe Biden, they chose negatively.
It didn’t matter that Bernie and Bloomberg had vastly outspent Biden. The positive advertising they were buying was no match for the negative perception that they wouldn’t be able to beat Trump.
Positive advertising doesn’t have to do much work when building a brand. But it has to do the heavy lifting when it’s pushing against a negative reputation. And the negative has gravity on its side.
Most of those hundreds of millions in ad dollars were positive advertising, but the Democrat base was thinking negative. And this is going to have major implications for tactics in the 2020 election.
Money wasn’t able to buy the 2016 election. It won’t buy the 2020 election either.
Had Bloomberg understood the new dynamic he would have had an extra billion in spending money to buy a private island, a herd of albino giraffes, or build a giant golden laser gun to blot out the sun.
Advertising can sell two kinds of products: luxury goods and necessities.
Politics, for most people, used to be a luxury good. Advertising could sell people on politicians because politics was seen as optional. And then politics stopped being a luxury and became a universal necessity.
That transformed our political system.
The universalization of politics arrived in a big way in 2016. And it made the old styles of politics irrelevant. Eight years after playing messiah, Obama, not just the man, but his image, was over. The 2020 Democrats who lined up, one after another, to play the same role wasted all their money.
Obama had been the quintessential luxury good. An expensive product that made fans feel good about themselves even though they recognized that it didn’t do anything for them in any tangible sense.
Even before the pandemic arrived, 2020 was going to be defined by politics as a necessity.
Bloomberg spent hundreds of millions trying to advertise himself as a luxury good. But Republicans and Democrats both see the outcome of the election as an urgent and vital necessity. For Republicans, reelecting Trump is a necessity, and for Democrats, stopping Trump is just as urgently necessary.
Branding is important if you’re buying a purse, not if you’re trying to save your life.
Ad spending has come to correlate negatively with winning elections. The 2020 race is narrowing down to two candidates, Trump and Biden, who emerged to lead their parties without the big ad spending. But where Trump emerged by battling his party leadership, Biden was the choice of his party leadership. Trump is a self-defined figure while Biden is the closest thing to a blank slate. Mentally.
Biden is the choice of a party that wants a completely malleable candidate who will read whatever is written on the teleprompter (or at least try) without caring what it is or why he’s reading it.
The Democrats didn’t want the first female, gay, bald, or socialist president.
They wanted a puppet.
As absurd as Biden may be, he’s the expression of a political party that is deadly serious about winning. Republicans and Democrats don’t see elections as optional anymore, but as zero-sum existential crises. Democrats understand that 2020 will be a referendum on Trump. They’ve chosen a forgettable blank slate candidate whose only mission is staying alive long enough to take office and step down for a Veep.
The Democrats understand that Biden doesn’t matter. Trump does.
Bloomberg was trying to fight a whole new war with the weapons of the old war.
The election will be fought and won, not with TV ads, but in a hard battle between the media and social media. While Bloomberg was spending hundreds of millions on television advertising, both sides were gearing up for a culture war during a pandemic. Money won’t settle a culture war. Americans will.
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