Democratic presidential candidate and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the ​U.S. Conference of Mayors' Winter Meeting on Jan. 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates betrayals of public trust. Sign up to receive our stories.

Having bought himself into contention for the Democratic presidential nomination, billionaire Michael Bloomberg will tonight stand atop a debate stage in Las Vegas, a city where big money rules. 

Despite President Donald Trump’s tweetsertion that Bloomberg is “illegally buying the Democrat nomination,” Bloomberg’s historic level of self-funded campaign spending is perfectly legal. Even Trump-like. 

Bloomberg is a post-Citizens United candidate, his own super PAC. As such, he can do what other billionaire-bashing Democrats cannot: use his wealth of $62 billion to eclipse the massive financial resources of Trump, who’s been running for re-election since the day of his inauguration

That’s a tantalizing proposition for some Democrats, heresy for many others. So, expect the Las Vegas debate to get ugly for Bloomberg. Quickly.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, might ding Bloomberg on his lack of transparency — Bloomberg is set to debate tonight having not yet filed a mandatory personal financial disclosure, something that all other debating candidates have. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden could remind viewers that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, primarily self-financed political candidates fare poorly in federal elections. During the 2018 election cycle, for example, 42 Democrats ran for either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate and each spent more than $1 million of their own money in a bid to win. Only nine did — about one in five.

And Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will likely appeal to the many Democrats who are aghast at the notion of supporting someone whose campaign is so flush that it pays social media influencers $150 a pop just to help make Bloomberg look cool.

“At least now primary voters curious about how each candidate will take on Donald Trump can get a live demonstration of how we each take on an egomaniac billionaire,” Warren tweeted Tuesday.

En route to this moment, Bloomberg has trampled most every Democratic Party platform plank designed to defend against the political influence of people like him.

Consider: Not four years have passed since Democrats adopted a national party platform packed with prognostications about elections conducted in service to “everyday Americans” and the “powerless.” Notably:

  • “Our vision for American democracy is a nation in which all people, regardless of their income, can participate in the political process and can run for office without needing to depend on large contributions from the wealthy and the powerful.”
  • “We will appoint judges who … curb billionaires’ influence over elections because they understand that Citizens United has fundamentally damaged our democracy, and believe the Constitution protects not only the powerful, but also the disadvantaged and powerless.”
  • “And we will fight to reform our broken campaign finance system, which gives outsized influence to billionaires and big corporations. It’s time we give back control of our elections to those to whom it belongs — the American people.”

Just last year, the Democratic National Committee doubled down: a Democratic presidential candidate’s ability to raise lots of small-dollar donations would determine whether he or she qualified for nationally televised debates. 

Why? Because, as DNC Chairman Tom Perez said at the time, “campaigns are won on the strength of their grassroots” and such Democrats should have a “bigger voice in the primary than ever before.” 

For months, this standard held. 

Then, on Nov. 24, Bloomberg entered the presidential race.

Eschewing donations of any sort, as was his practice while running for New York City mayor during the 2000s, Bloomberg ignited his Super Tuesday-directed effort with what’s now about $350 million worth of self-financed advertisements.

Many of these ads present Bloomberg as the Democratic candidate best situated to defeat Trump. Others, such as a spot that ran during the Super Bowl, highlight Bloomberg’s quest to end gun violence. A new ad tethers Bloomberg to former President Barack Obama — much to Biden’s chagrin. Bloomberg followed up today with an ad featuring Biden praising Bloomberg, albeit from a few years back.

No presidential candidate in U.S. history has spent so much money so quickly. Not Trump, who initially self-funded his presidential primary campaign, then changed his mind, ultimately spending $66.1 million of his own money to win the White House in 2016. Not Obama, who shattered spending records in 2008. Not self-funded Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in 1992. 

As self-funding campaigns with unlimited money is legal, Bloomberg doesn’t even need to employ the political spending freedoms granted 10 years ago in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — a Democratic Party scourge — which allowed corporations, unions and certain nonprofit organizations to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bloomberg’s national poll numbers have darted upward, to the point where he’s consistently polling in double digits. He’s well-positioned to overtake Biden though still trails Sanders.

Bloomberg’s presidential campaign became too big to ignore, his anti-Trump message and muscle behind it too prominent.

“We cannot afford four more years of President Trump’s reckless and unethical actions. He represents an existential threat to our country and our values,” Bloomberg said at the start of his campaign — a message he’s endlessly repeated ever since. 

On Jan. 31, without specifically citing Bloomberg as the reason, the DNC announced it would shelve its small-dollar donor requirement ahead of the Las Vegas debate, effectively guaranteeing Bloomberg would directly face his opponents for the first time. 

Other Democratic candidates protested — “It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate,” Warren said this week — but no matter. 

With Bloomberg, the DNC is this month “bending to reality,” said Lee Goodman, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.

“The DNC might feel frustrated that its carefully engineered debate rules did not control the field, but they cannot ignore a candidate polling in the top three,” Goodman said.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.