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Michael Bloomberg and the Legacy of Self-Financed Candidates

by Susan Reefer, Apr 01, 2001
 
 

That Michael Bloomberg, publisher, businessman, billionaire, is planning to run in the New York City mayoral race has stirred interest and controversy among pundits and pols alike for several reasons.

For one, he is running as a Republican in this city dominated by Democratic politics. Most speculation attributes this sudden change of heart (Bloomberg is a recent convert to the Republican Party) to the dearth of candidates in the Republican field, compared to the crowded Democratic primary.

The major reason that Michael Bloomberg is stirring up so much attention, however, has nothing to do with his political affiliations. He is the only candidate with the ability to self-finance, and that makes his candidacy very interesting indeed.

Self-financed candidacies are nothing new, of course. In 1992, Ross Perot's presidential campaign highlighted both the possibilities and the inherent risks of a candidate-funded race. Since then, we've seen several examples, some of them close to home. And the results are mixed. Last year in New Jersey, Jon Corzine went from quirky to U.S. Senate in under twelve months. Of course, the price tag was over $50 million.

But money doesn't guarantee victory. Betsy Ross, after being dropped as Governor Pataki's running mate in 1998, switched parties and used her new husband's fortune to wage a campaign for governor as a Democrat. After a lackluster primary campaign, she failed to secure the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Money is essential to running a campaign. Without some source of funding, it is virtually (although not completely) impossible to win. Some money is a necessity. How much money it takes to be competitive is still the source of significant debate.

That debate has resulted locally in the new campaign finance laws. Candidates for citywide office, once they establish certain benchmarks of support, are eligible for matching funds in the ratio of four public funding dollars to every dollar raised by the candidate. That ratio should allow the four major candidates on the Democratic side to be fully funded for this year's race.

Which is why Bloomberg's candidacy, and his money, are coming at such an interesting time. Having all the money you need, all the money you want, all the money you know what to do with is an advantage, of course; but it may not be as big an advantage as first thought.

Spending millions of dollars in a state like New Jersey is a measurable advantage. New Jersey is a state with a large population, spread out over a moderately large geographic area. The media markets are New York City and Philadelphia, the first and fourth most expensive markets in the country, respectively. The more money you have, the more media time you can buy, the more people you can reach. There's a direct correlation between money spent and the ability to communicate with voters.

New York City, however, in its politics as in so very many things, is different. Sure, New Yorkers watch television. But New York is also one of the last vestiges of old-school organizational politics. Relationships matter. Alliances matter. Endorsements really matter. Marching in parades and speaking to political clubs and meeting with editorial boards, these things do matter. They aren't just photo ops or symbolic gestures. They are the lifeblood of New York City campaigns. And what's more, they don't cost a thing.

And so if the most important aspect of New York City campaigning is less about money and more about retail, door-to-door, hand-to-hand politicking, maybe all the money in the world won't make that big of a difference.

But that will ultimately be up to the voters. At this date, it seems a safe bet that Bloomberg will be on the ballot this November, alongside the Democratic nominee and a scattering of minor party candidates. Whether the voters go with organization and experience, or advertising and image, will be at least a preliminary answer to the question. The question isn't, "Does money matter?" but "How much?"

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.


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