Will Bloomberg’s $410 Million TV Ad Campaign Pay Off?

Will Bloomberg’s $410 Million TV Ad Campaign Pay Off?


Each dot below is a television ad from a Democratic presidential candidate that ran a week before Super Tuesday.



Maps show all ads airing in 15-minute increments. Locations are based on media market areas. States in white will hold elections on Super Tuesday.

With roughly $410 million, Michael R. Bloomberg bought omnipresence. Whether that translates to votes is a premise that faces its first test on Super Tuesday, when more than one-third of all delegates are up for grabs. It will be the first time Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is competing in a primary; he opted to skip the first four nominating contests.

Though Mr. Bloomberg averages a few in-person events per day and has a staff of 2,500 around the country, his sprawling campaign is powered by one of the most traditional weapons in a candidate’s arsenal: the television ad.

The breadth of Mr. Bloomberg’s broadcast campaign is numbing. The roughly $410 million on television ads alone — $370 million spent, and another $41 million reserved through super Tuesday — is more than Hillary Clinton and President Trump spent on television ads during their entire 2016 presidential campaigns, primary and general elections combined, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad tracking firm. And Mr. Bloomberg, who entered the race in November, did it in four months.

The inundation of the airwaves amounts to a big bet by the billionaire that sheer volume can be enough to build a base of support that, starting on Super Tuesday, will allow him to pull away from candidates who have been in the race for much longer.


Share of candidates’ TV ads that ran in Super Tuesday media markets



“People make too much of the word ‘unprecedented,’ but this was truly unprecedented, in how much money he spent, how quickly he spent it and how unopposed that money was,” said Ken Goldstein, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

Of course, another self-funding billionaire — Tom Steyer — has had little success with the vast sums he has spent on his presidential campaign. With more than $150 million spent in television ads, Mr. Steyer placed seventh in Iowa, sixth in New Hampshire and fifth in Nevada. But Mr. Steyer, who has never held elected office before, started the race with slightly less name recognition than Mr. Bloomberg, and he focused heavily on early voting states.

The Super Tuesday-first strategy often gave Mr. Bloomberg the only political microphone in many of these states, as candidates with fewer resources had to focus most of their television budgets on Iowa and New Hampshire. In some mid-size markets, he remains the only candidate on air.

A look into some of these ad buys gave an indication of how Mr. Bloomberg might amass delegates, even while losing some states, to be competitive. Because the Democratic primary features proportional delegate allotments, often by congressional district, a candidate who comes in third or fourth over all in a state, but has an exceptionally strong showing in a certain area, can still amass a significant delegate count.

“When you’re spending that much money unopposed, you’re doing two things,” Mr. Goldstein said. “You’re getting the general advantage, yes, but it’s also allowing you to play everywhere, which is an advantage for delegate math.”

Mr. Bloomberg is attempting to turn his ad campaign into delegates in several ways: through an inundation of expensive markets with a potentially responsive suburban population; with heavy spending in a state where he will clearly lose the topline battle but can still sneak some delegates; or by a simple domination of the airwaves.

Political campaigns are normally a game of budgeting exercises and allocating finite resources, which dictates where ads are aired and when. But if the resources are no longer finite, there can be blanket advertising even where there isn’t essentially as big of a return on investment.

Consider the television markets across Texas; though they are heavily Republican areas, Mr. Bloomberg has often had the airwaves all to himself. He has been the only candidate on air in seven markets in Texas, spending a total of $4.3 million in those areas, though Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Mr. Steyer recently began advertising in a few. Still, he remains the only candidate consistently on air in Amarillo, Tyler, Sherman and Wichita Falls.


Ads that ran in Texas media markets



Though the system in Texas is a little complicated, with some delegates being awarded based on state senate districts, Mr. Bloomberg’s sole position on the airwaves there can help him win delegates with less competition than in Houston or Dallas.

His wealth also allows him to spend in states where he clearly will not win. Minnesota, for instance, has 75 delegates up for grabs, only the sixth-most on Super Tuesday and far less than the 415 delegates in California. It also has a popular home state senator, Amy Klobuchar, ahead in the polls, with the 2016 primary winner, Mr. Sanders, not far behind.

So why is Mr. Bloomberg spending nearly $10 million in the state?


Ads that ran in Minnesota media markets



Minnesota has a few geographically large, Republican-leaning congressional districts in the northern part of the state. The northeastern Eighth Congressional District, for example, is served almost exclusively by the Duluth media market, and offers up five delegates.

In a rural district like that, retail campaigning in a packed presidential primary schedule can be difficult, and the airwaves become even more important. So Mr. Bloomberg has put roughly $900,000 on air in Duluth, compared with just $17,000 by Ms. Klobuchar and $19,000 by Mr. Sanders.

The First Congressional District in the southern strip of the state, similarly rural and Republican leaning, is also worth five delegates. The district is split among multiple media markets, including one of the smallest in the country, Mankato. Mr. Bloomberg is the only candidate spending money in Mankato, with $850,000 on air. He is similarly alone in La Crosse, a Wisconsin media market that seeps into the southeastern corner of Minnesota, spending $780,000 there.

The messages in these rural areas are fairly diverse — Mr. Bloomberg has run 38 different ads in Duluth alone — though nearly one third of them in each market deal directly with health care. Only a few go after Mr. Trump as aggressively as Mr. Bloomberg has in other states.

So while Mr. Bloomberg is unlikely to finish high in placement in many Super Tuesday states, his vast resources in a state like Minnesota can help amass some delegates.

Perhaps nowhere is the Bloomberg financial might more prevalent than in Los Angeles and San Diego. Mr. Bloomberg has spent a combined $31 million on broadcast alone in those two markets.


Ads that ran in the Los Angeles and San Diego media markets



California is another state where polls show Mr. Bloomberg running far behind Mr. Sanders, who is the front-runner, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

But the expensive Los Angeles media market includes Orange County, the former Republican stronghold that saw four of its six congressional districts flip from Republican to Democrat in 2018, turning the entire county blue.

Part of the flip can be attributed to demographic changes in Southern California. But these largely suburban districts were also core to the suburban revolt against Mr. Trump that had begun as soon as he was elected, and brought in a wave of more moderate Democrats in states from California to New Jersey. Indeed, Representative Harley Rouda, who won in the 48th district, which is in Orange County, has endorsed Mr. Bloomberg.

The new suburban Democrats may be attracted to Mr. Bloomberg’s more moderate message, and he’s been hammering them with it; more than half of his ads in Los Angeles and San Diego deal with the issue of health care. One ad, which attacks Mr. Trump for saying “let Obamacare implode,” ran more than 1,700 times in the two markets, the most of any Bloomberg ad, powered by $2.2 million.

Each of the Orange County congressional districts also award five delegates, a similar opportunity for Mr. Bloomberg to build his potential haul.

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