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Bloomberg Bet Big On California. It Might Not Pay Off.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Michael Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters in downtown Los Angeles was the wall of terrariums. For one brief second I wondered, staring at the multitude of tiny, meticulously groomed succulents clustered on a bookshelf that ran almost half the length of a cavernous, industrial-chic loft, if I had somehow misstepped and stumbled into an Anthropologie. But there was the former New York mayor — or at least, a cutout of him, propped up across from a huge white wall plastered with campaign signs.

It was still early in the morning, but the Bloomberg bus had already pulled up outside to drop off a group of gun safety advocates who had been touring the state and talking to local leaders. Staffers were setting up for a private roundtable with a local prosecutor and a LA city council member who had recently endorsed Bloomberg, placing a “Bloomberg 2020” screen in front of a giant mural of a pink-skinned woman in sunglasses with rainbow hair, spelling out “LA” with her fingers. Still stunned by the opulence of the space, I asked Lys Mendez, a spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign, where they had found so many terrariums. “Oh, it came this way,” she said, shrugging. “We had to ramp up in California so quickly — we just took the office space we could find.”

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

It’s hard to avoid thinking of Bloomberg’s bid as a kind of political science experiment — a test of whether an elderly, extraordinarily wealthy ex-Republican can run a competitive campaign almost entirely on the basis of his own advertising and a big, generously paid staff. That experiment will play out across the country this week, when Bloomberg will finally appear on the ballot after a bizarre campaign in which he entered the race late, skipped the four early states and focused instead on winning the trove of delegates that await on Super Tuesday.

And California is, in many ways, the maximal test of Bloomberg’s strategy. He’s invested a lot in other big Super Tuesday states like Texas, but California is the state where his dollars should carry him the furthest, because its media markets are so expensive and the state’s large, diverse population makes it hard to set up an effective ground game.

His spending spree has certainly gotten him somewhere in California. Bloomberg is now polling around 13 percent in California, according to our average, up from 4 percent in January. But Californians also love to tell you about the self-funded candidates who have tried — and failed — to spend their way into public office. Take Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Michael Huffington or Al Checchi. After this Tuesday, we’ll know whether Bloomberg will join that inglorious pantheon or whether California’s unexpected contribution to the Democratic nomination process is the elevation of a self-funded billionaire’s candidacy.

Right now, it seems like Bloomberg will finish in third or fourth place even though he has spent tens of millions of dollars in the state. But after seeing Bloomberg’s swanky office, I wanted to find out how ordinary Californians were feeling about his campaign. After spending several days talking to voters across Los Angeles, one thing became clear: Bloomberg’s spending has bought him notoriety, but hasn’t translated into widespread enthusiasm.

It’s hard to find a Californian who’s not aware of Bloomberg’s run, thanks to his advertising blitz in the state over the past few months. Since the beginning of the year, he’s spent more than $36 million on television advertising alone. “I’d describe it as a bombardment,” said Khalid Maznavi, 39, who is supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “He’s there whenever I turn on the radio or watch TV. And it’s been like that for weeks.”

Bloomberg has dominated the airwaves in California

The estimated amount of money each active Democratic presidential candidate spent on broadcast TV ads from Jan. 1 to Feb. 27, 2020, in California-based media markets, and the number of times their ads aired

Candidate Estimated Spending on TV Ads Number of Airings
Michael Bloomberg $36,270,860 49,506
Bernie Sanders 5,540,490 10,246

Source: Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group

Fueled by Bloomberg’s bottomless fortune, the campaign has also quickly assembled an enormous outreach machine to reach California voters. According to research by FiveThirtyEight contributor and political scientist Joshua Darr, Bloomberg now has the biggest footprint in the state, with 25 field offices scattered across California — just barely topping Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has 23 field offices.1

His rapidly expanding team is well-compensated for its time. As recently as last week, his campaign was “urgently hiring” for organizers who would be paid $18 per hour, well above the state’s minimum wage. Bloomberg has also amassed a wide network of high-profile local supporters and endorsers — like San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Michael Tubbs, the millennial mayor of Stockton — even though Bloomberg is relatively new to California, having only opened his first office in the state two months ago.

But on the ground in Los Angeles, Bloomberg fans were surprisingly hard to find. Some of the glitzy events sponsored by the campaign were relatively sparsely attended, despite the lure of free food and drinks and even a live band. In many cases, the people at the events seemed to have been drawn more by curiosity than passion for Bloomberg’s message. At an event at a restaurant in Chinatown, Ed Choi, 44, told me that he had “kind of lost track” of the presidential primary after his first choice, Andrew Yang, dropped out. He was impressed that Bloomberg had taken the time to hold an event in Chinatown. “It’s the first time I’ve been to one of those, so that counts for something,” he said. But he said he was there with an open mind. “I just need to know more about where he stands on the issues.”

Paul Chen, a CPA who was schmoozing with one of the hosts of the Chinatown event, said that he hadn’t made up his mind yet either, but if he had to choose a candidate on the spot, it would be Biden. He dismissed Sanders with a sentiment that was widespread among attendees, who were largely local businesspeople. “I don’t like the way he’s all about everything being free,” Chen told me. But he added that he wasn’t yet convinced by Bloomberg either. “He’s got the financial backing, but I’m not sure he’ll be accepted by mainstream Democrats. That could be an issue.”

Each time I set off in search of Bloomberg supporters at events across Los Angeles, his press staff warned me to make sure I wasn’t talking to a campaign employee. Only volunteers were permitted to share their opinions with journalists. It was often a struggle to find someone who wasn’t paid to be there and willing to talk about their perspective on the record. Bloomberg’s campaign has recently hired hundreds of paid influencers to get out the word about his campaign on social media and via text message. And although people at candidate rallies or events are normally happy to chat with journalists, a surprising number of people refused to talk to me or let me use their names. One man nearly ran away when I said I was a reporter, saying he would never hear the end of it from his Sanders-supporting friends if word got out that he was considering Bloomberg.

By the time I did stumble upon a diehard Bloomberg fan, waiting outside a Los Angeles soccer stadium for a get-out-the-vote event, it felt like I had sighted a rare bird in the wild. Fabio Sabzevari, 25, told me with great enthusiasm that he had been volunteering in the Northridge office for two weeks. “It’s simple. I believe that he’s the moderate candidate who can win against Trump,” Sabzevari said. “And he’s got the resources to fight Trump’s multibillion-dollar disinformation machine. Who else in this race can do that?”

But Bloomberg’s ability to pour millions into his presidential bid was not a selling point for everyone. “It is mind-boggling to me that someone purporting to be acting under progressive ideals would be wasting millions and millions of dollars basically trying to force people to vote for him,” said Rhiannon Wilson, 22, a Sanders supporter. Wilson told me that her aversion to Bloomberg went well beyond his political stances. She said she was “disgusted” that he was trying to buy the nomination.

That attitude was far from unusual among the Californians I talked to. Tessie Borden, 53, who is supporting Warren, physically recoiled when I brought up Bloomberg. “I would not vote for that man. I think he’s a Republican plant,” she said. I asked her what she would do if he won the nomination. She shook her head a little and said, “I would write in Warren.”

Even if Bloomberg does overperform in California, that sentiment is one he’s likely to face in other states as the primary contest moves forward. Bloomberg is gambling that Democrats will be drawn to him because of his claim that he’s a candidate who can win. His spending spree is part of that appeal for some voters, who look at President Trump and wonder if he can only be defeated by another billionaire. But Bloomberg’s cash-fueled strategy also seems to be earning him genuine animosity in other corners of the Democratic base. And if his candidacy survives past Super Tuesday, it won’t be easy to convince those voters that he can be trusted.

Nathaniel Rakich contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. Data on field office locations is difficult to obtain, so this data — which is updated through Feb. 28 — may be incomplete. Data was collected through several sources, including the Democracy in Action project and candidate websites, several of which list events through the platform MobilizeAmerica. The Sanders, Bloomberg, and Warren campaigns also provided the total number of offices.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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