Two Billionaires Demonstrate the Limits of Money in Elections

No amount of money can buy victory for candidates who fail to persuade voters.


Two and a half weeks after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) slammed Michael Bloomberg for trying to "buy this election," the former New York City mayor left the presidential race, having spent $570 million of his own money to win 58 delegates—3 percent of the number needed to secure the Democratic nomination. Tom Steyer, the other billionaire in the race, did even worse, abandoning his campaign after spending more than $250 million and earning zero delegates.

Those spectacular failures should give pause to the politicians and activists who think money poses such a grave threat to democracy that the Constitution must be amended to authorize limits on campaign spending. Bloomberg and Steyer—who outspent former Vice President Joe Biden by factors of more than eight and nearly four, respectively—demonstrated that no amount of money can buy victory for candidates who fail to persuade voters.

Bloomberg's unprecedented ad blitz seemed to be effective at first, boosting his standing in national polls from around 3 percent in November to as high as 19 percent by early March. But when push came to shove, Democrats keen to replace President Donald Trump did not buy Bloomberg's argument that he was the man to do it.

The arrogance reflected by Bloomberg's strategy of skipping the early contests and debates, flooding the airwaves and internet with ads, and swooping in to rescue a party he had joined the year before launching his campaign probably helps explain why primary voters found him so unappealing. His disastrous performance during his first debate surely didn't help, and neither did his wooden demeanor or the generally uninspiring vibe of his TV spots, which one Democratic strategist described as "mediocre messaging at massive scale."

Steyer, a hedge fund manager who had previously spent many millions of his personal fortune to support losing Democratic candidates, saw almost no return on his investment in his own campaign. After polling at 0 percent last July, he climbed to 1 percent before dropping out in February.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that caps on campaign spending violate the First Amendment. Yet Democratic legislators are so obsessed with the supposedly corrupting impact of money in politics that they're ready to authorize such restrictions by fundamentally rewriting free speech law, as a proposed constitutional amendment—backed by every Democrat in the Senate and more than nine out of 10 Democrats in the House—would do.

Contrary to the fears underlying that illiberal initiative, voters are perfectly capable of rejecting even the most powerfully amplified messages. Just ask Bloomberg and Steyer.

NEXT: Brickbat: Volunteer, or Else

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    1. A principled libertarian who realized #TrumpUkraine was the biggest scandal in world history?

      1. Wow, really?
        I’m still not perfect at detecting trolls, so are you just looking for feedback to make you feel good?

        Secondly, even if you assume the worst case scenario, the liberal lefts version of the facts, you only condemn just about every Democrat in the last hundred years. Certainly every D mayor of every big city in the US. Quid Quo Pro is just the norm. I’m from Detroit, and I think Kwame Kilpatrick is still in jail for a little QQP. I’m all for creating a higher standards for our politicians, but let’s not pretend that the game hasn’t been dirty for a while.

        If you really want to help clean things up, support all the groups that are working toward stronger open government regulations at every level. Support groups that will make it harder for Nancy Pelosi to direct 100’s of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars of government contract to firms represented by her brother. Ditto Biden and his son. Sure there are Republicans who do the same, and I don’t like them, and am working to strengthen the rules, but with partisans like you, we can expect more of the same.

        1. Wow, really?

          No, not really.

          OBL, for over a decade, has been a parody account mocking both A) the sort of “libertarian” who’s always trying to make an alliance with the left (going back to the late Bush era “liberaltarians”) and B) the sort of libertarian who thinks that you can actually have open-border immigration in the world and US as currently constituted without it resulting in a disaster.

          1. I thought he was just mocking Reason writers.

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  2. A 920MM combined hit to two total assholes? One weeps. NOT! 🙂

    1. Ah hell…only 820MM. Oh well. Still….they pissed away money for nothing.

      1. At that rate they could’ve paid everybody in America $92M each!

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  3. “Yet Democratic legislators are so obsessed with the supposedly corrupting impact of money in politics that they’re ready to authorize such restrictions by fundamentally rewriting free speech law”

    Democrats don’t want to stop money in politics, they want to stop money for opponents in politics. They have never sought to restrict funds from PACs that are tied to charity, such as Planned Parenthood’s “independent” campaign arm nor have they ever sought to stop the ability of Unions to spend.

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  4. Michael Bloomberg’s ultimate goal was not necessarily to win the Presidency for himself. He’s mainly concerned with removing Orange Hitler from office. In that respect, he’s very similar to Reason.com’s billionaire benefactor Charles Koch, whose net worth has been collapsing due to Drumpf’s high-tariff / low-immigration policies.

    As the election approaches, it will become clear that American billionaires are united behind Joe Biden to an even greater extent than they were behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. And Biden will obviously win, demonstrating that #BillionairesKnowBest.


    1. So just how bad is it for Koch? Bad enough that he stops giving money to Team D?

      1. He sure didn’t pony up for Amash.

    2. If you think that Bloomberg didn’t really want to be President then you don’t know Bloomberg. This was not altruism, he has no altruism.

  5. Actually, the point is that it is useless to spend YOUR OWN money to get elected.
    As every ‘successful’ candidate shows, it is spending OTHER PEOPLE’s money that gets you elected.
    (which also explains the federal budget)

    1. One person spending money on a candidate is a fool. A whole bunch of people is a movement. Never been sure why the plural isn’t fools?

    2. Brilliant distinction. OPM means political favors, insider deals, and cronies all the way down–exactly as modern democracy is designed to work.

      1. Who’s down with OPM, yeah you know me, who’s down OPM, every last hommie!!!!

    3. On the contrary, I think it’s inverse. On the presidential level, the amount of money you raise is proportional to your support. Essentially, popular support brings money. Money doesn’t bring popular support.

      Now, on the local scale, a certain level of spending is necessary to bring up awareness. However, on the larger competitions, beyond the basics of “this person is running”, people will actively seek you out

      1. yup, the advance auction of stolen goods. people gotta place their bets.

    4. Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump by about 4x.

  6. I’m grateful to Steyer and Bloomberg for staging this demonstration.

    1. Not as grateful as the media that was paid for all the advertising.
      That’s why “getting money out of politics” will never fly.

  7. They have to regulate speech because of how little they trust democracy.

    1. So, destroy speech in order to save it?

      1. I agree with this. The underlying assumption to this whole conversation is that the people are so stupid that they will be easily fooled by lots of commercials, which to some degree is true, but cutting the spending will not make them smarter.

        1. The general media consensus seems to be that Russia can make the American electorate dance like a puppet for $100k, maybe candidates can hire them?

          1. Yep, Steyer and Bloomberg cooked a billion trying to get the brass ring, and all they had to do is hire some pimply Russian kid to do it for less than they spend on gas.

      2. Destroy speech so that people vote correctly.

        1. I propose we destroy voting and keep speech. Also, keep woodchippers.

    2. Chief Elder: When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time. [The Giver]

      The part played entirely without irony by Meryl Streep.

      1. I’ve had a long standing theory that the reason that she’s so good at villains who spout lines like that is that she’s not an actress. She’s being told she’s in a documentary.

  8. Sullum does not get it.

    Revealed, unquestionable truth for Bernie Bros and fellow travelers: money is evil, and mo money is mo evil. “Logical” derivative: anyone with money must be barred.

    1. Socialists believe that money gives the wealthy disproportionate influence over politics. About half of the members of Congress are millionaires, for example, while millionaires account for about one per cent of the total population.

      1. I’d be worried about the half who aren’t millionaires. If people are going to set themselves up to make the rules for the rest of us, it would be nice if they know how things work.

        1. “it would be nice if they know how things work.”

          Money is not a requirement for knowing how things work. All you need is a modicum of intelligence and curiosity.

      2. “About half of the members of Congress are millionaires”

        Chicken->Egg or Egg->Chicken

        Do the members of Congress have political influence due to wealth, or did they leverage political influence to become wealthy. Personally I think the later is more likely in most cases.

        1. Exactly. Half the members are currently millionaires. The others will be as long as they keep voting correctly per their donors.

        2. Socialists believe that money gives the wealthy an advantage in office seeking that others don’t have.

          1. No, they just say that for public consumption. The reality is that even, or especially in socialist regimes political influence makes acquiring wealth easier.

            There is a reason why the Forbes list of wealthiest individuals excludes heads of state.

            1. “There is a reason why the Forbes list of wealthiest individuals excludes heads of state.”

              Makes perfect sense to me, but most politicians are in it for power, not money. Lenin, for example, had pretty modest needs for the things money could buy, excepting newspaper and printing and distribution costs.

              “or especially in socialist regimes political influence makes acquiring wealth easier.”

              There’s always ways to game any system and we tend to award people who do that. For a socially just society a certain amount of vigilance is required, together with a spirit of self criticism.

              It’s not a conspiracy, it’s there for anyone to see.

  9. Russian interference is the key to winning.

    1. “Russian interference…”

      … is done on a shoe string budget relying on unpaid, willing American stooges to undermine the legitimacy of elections. Not all that much different from the days when communists were in power.

    2. So $100k worth of Facebook trolling can buy an election but almost $1B of money cannot buy more than a handful of convention delegates?

      1. “So $100k worth of Facebook trolling can buy an election”

        They’re not interested in buying elections or convention delegates. That’s the game of wealthy Americans. The Russian intelligence agencies are interested in undermining the legitimacy of American elections, and they rely on unpaid American stooges to do this.

        1. *puts on tinfoil hat*

          And who are these “Russkie stooges”?

          1. Look for them in Facebook forums dedicated to Russian inspired groups for Texas Independence, California Independence and so on. This is detailed in various parts of the internet if you are interested in further checking. Of course, with intelligence operations, it could all be a set up but it seems to be the sort of thing the Russians doing, because its restrained nature, it doesn’t go partisan, which the Russians perhaps believe crosses some red line in the spy world.

  10. I’ve always been intrigued by the language they offer to try to keep money out of politics. How they define media companies, to allow the NYT but ban Fox News; how they define journalist to include MSNBC and CNN infotainment celebrities but not Fox News; how they define bloggers one way or the other.

    The problem with loose vague shifty definitions, of course, is that when the political winds shift, so do the definitions. You’d think they’d figure that out, but they never do. The only logical conclusion is not that they are so stupid, but that they don’t care, because they are all the same team.

    1. No, I love Shayari.
      Just who the fuck are you?

      1. Shayari, that bitch!
        She broke my heart and took all my money

      2. Your use of that vulgarity makes you appear childish.

  11. Wasn’t Bloomberg a mayor of one of the biggest cities in the world? I guess he got there with his rugged good looks and charisma. But seriously, they do help define the “limits” of money. Trump too helped us see the contours differently. It isn’t money so much as popularity and media coverage that gets you traction with the electorate. We know that money is one way to achieve media popularity. Things can go viral without the support of big media, but would CNN and FOX amplify your viral message if it challenged their advertisers’ message? Money is always lurking in the background projecting its own limits.

    1. And Buttigieg was the mayor of a small Indiana town, and did better than Bloomberg in the primaries.

      1. Google gave him some 400 grand.

  12. ALL of the money spent by candidates is wasted. No one chooses a candidate based on how many staffers he hires or how good his TV ads are — we skip ahead or change the channel. The only second hand value of cash spent is to signal to the TV networks which candidates “merit” their coverage, which (along with political websites) is how people pick their candidates now. Candidates need good press (or even bad press), and having an actual record and philosophy and some speaking ability helps. An expensive “ground team” doesn’t, unless the candidate is locked in a very close race with someone else.

  13. Where I object to money in politics is the use of negative campaigning. Money can not win if you can not put out a good message. But money can influence an election if you flood the market with negative ads. The ads themselves don’t directly help your election but they can make people give up on elections. Then you rely on your base to win.

    1. The ads themselves don’t directly help your election but they can make people give up on elections.

      “Ads don’t work. Unless they’re negative ads against my preferred candidate and then they cause people to lose faith in democracy. Anyway, whatever the problem is, it’s not my completely shitty candidate and the completely shitty ideology she represents.”

      More delicious tears.

    2. You’re really having trouble fitting the facts to your narrative.

      So you’re telling me that for half the price of a single 30-sec primetime commercial space ($193,210), Russia bought an election.
      However, Steyer and Bloomberg couldn’t get by the starting gate after spending ten-thousand times as much. And the only difference is that Russia was negative and Steyer and Bloomberg were positive?

      My goodness, what about the fact that half the Russian ads were pro-Hilldog, and Steyer and Bloomberg ran plenty of negative ads?

      1. No, that’s not what he’s telling you and you apparently completely missed his actual narrative.

  14. It’s not when the run, it’s after they get in and pass legislation that the lobbyist ask them to pass in return for campaign funds.

    That’s why there are so many in congress who make a life’s work out of being a legislator.

    1. I doubt anyone makes a career out of politics because of the fund raising. I imagine they typically look at it as a necessary evil. If anything it must be a humiliating experience and they pass the task on to minions whenever they can get away with it.

  15. And in California, you could ask Meg Whitman (who outspent Jerry Brown by 9-1?) and Michael Huffington.

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