Billionaires Bloomberg and Steyer Are Paying Big Bucks to Dominate the Airwaves in California

But will money spent on TV ads make a difference in the long run?
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TV viewers in early primary states have been bombarded by Democratic candidate-sponsored commercial spots. In California, however, only three candidates have invested in TV ads, according to data collected by FiveThirtyEight: Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, and Bernie Sanders.

But of the three, Steyer and Bloomberg—the two billionaires in the race—have dominated the state’s media market, spending a whopping $15.6 million and $33 million, respectively. Sanders, by comparison, has only spent $1.7 million, while the other five remaining candidates have yet to put any money into TV advertising in the Golden State.

“It’s really unusual to see this much advertising, especially from candidates who are not top tier in the polls,” says UCLA Professor of Communications Tim Groeling, who describes the amounts spent so far as “staggering.”

Bloomberg, a three-term New York City mayor, made his fortune in financial services. Forbes currently estimates his wealth at $61.8 billion, which would make him the ninth-richest person in the United States.

The billionaire, who first ran for mayor of NYC as a Republican, announced his entry into the presidential contest later than the other candidates. As a result, he made the unconventional choice to skip the early races in Iowa and New Hampshire, opting instead to plow enormous resources into the later, delegate-rich states like California. So far, Bloomberg has put down over $300 million in digital and television advertising—already half of what Donald Trump and his allies raised in the entire 2016 election.

While Bloomberg has no delegates to show for his investment, his national poll numbers have quickly established him as a contender. Since he announced his run on November 24, he has risen to third place with 14 percent, according to the poll aggregator Real Clear Politics, ahead of Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Warren. The impact of his ad buys in California is debatable, but Bloomberg now finds himself polling in a virtual dead heat with Biden at 13 percent.

On the other hand, Steyer, who has appeared on the ballot in each state since Iowa, has had much less success with his billionaire blitzkrieg. With $133 million spent on television ads, Steyer is polling at a meager 1.8 percent nationally and has a delegate count to equal Bloomberg’s: zero.

Bloomberg’s aggressive marketing is unlikely to have any effect on Sanders’s support. Instead, he will likely siphon off support from the moderates like Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and especially Biden. The person who benefits the most from this? Sanders, says Eric Schickler, the Co-Director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.

“Let’s say a majority of democratic voters are not super excited about Sanders,” he says, “if those voters are split, that’s going to help Bernie’s cause.”

This might work to Bloomberg’s advantage, though. If the primaries end without a clear Democratic winner by the time of the convention, it leads to a brokered convention.

“Then he might actually stand a fairly good chance at that point,” Groeling says.


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