WASHINGTON, DC – There are many questions surrounding Michael Bloomberg's potential presidential candidacy. Whether he'll have enough money to sustain a lengthy and bruising campaign is not one of them.
The billionaire former New York City mayor opened the door this week to a potential Democratic White House bid, prompting an avalanche of criticism from would-be rivals who say he wants to use his vast wealth to buy the presidency.
"Swell. Another billionaire thinking that the Democratic nomination is for sale," said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, another 2020 candidate. "Here's the problem with big money in politics. It just never stops."
Progressives who believe the wealthy have outsized influence in politics have pushed Democratic White House hopefuls to reject big money in politics — and they've had considerable success. So far, the cash race has been celebrated as a triumph of small-dollar grassroots contributors, who have fueled the campaigns of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, over big-dollar donors in the Democratic establishment.
Bloomberg, whose fortune Forbes estimates to be more than $50 billion, doesn't need either. And his successful campaigns for mayor of New York are proof.
Now a Democrat, Bloomberg secured reelection as a Republican in 2005 after burying his opponents under an $84 million mountain of his own cash. Four years later, he invested even more, outspending his rivals by at least 10-to-1 after plunging $108 million into his race.
That's more than what the top three grossing fundraisers in the primary — Warren of Massachusetts, Sanders of Vermont, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — have spent in the race so far.
Underscoring the opportunities afforded by his wealth, Bloomberg plans to skip early voting states including Iowa and New Hampshire if he launches a presidential bid and instead focus on the states that vote on Super Tuesday. That allows him to compete fiercely in expensive media markets like those in California, the biggest prize of the March 3 contests. He can also hire staff and build infrastructure while his potential rivals still have most of their resources tied up in the traditional early voting states.
Money alone, however, doesn't guarantee votes. Tom Steyer, another billionaire businessman in the race, has struggled to break out of low-single-digit polling despite investing at least $47 million in the race.
"If money was everything, Tom Steyer would be in double digits," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who supports former Vice President Joe Biden, who relies on big-dollar donors and has lagged in fundraising behind Warren and Sanders.
To his detractors, Bloomberg is the embodiment of the power wielded by the wealthy. But his defenders insist that his finances and background on Wall Street don't mitigate his support of progressive causes like gun control and climate change.
"Is he the white knight Wall Street wants? Who cares. He understood as mayor that you have to represent a wide variety of views and people. And if he becomes a Democratic presidential candidate, he knows it's not Wall Street's decision," said Robert Zimmerman, a prominent donor and Democratic National Committeeman from New York.
Bloomberg has also earned ample amounts of goodwill from party leaders for using his fortune to help the party take back the House last year and win both chambers of the Virginia Legislature this week for the first time in decades.
He has given generously to Republicans in the past. But the $94.6 million he spent supporting federal candidates and national Democratic committees in 2018 was more than he'd ever given before, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records.
Rendell, however, questioned whether Bloomberg would ultimately run.
"Bloomberg is a smart guy," Rendell said. "If he wanted to go war with the Biden folks, the Steyer folks and everybody else, he would have said he's in — no ifs, ands or buts."