Opinion: The Perils of Purchasing the Presidency

By Emily Dalgleish, Opinions Editor

This past week, 17 million people watched Elizabeth Warren eviscerate Michael Bloomberg in the Nevada Democratic debate. Though Bloomberg’s debate performance was abysmal, the 17 million that saw him flounder on stage pale in comparison to the millions who are bombarded with his daily TV and online advertising. Google and Facebook have served over 2 billion Bloomberg ads so far this year, and his national polling has steadily climbed. We should not be surprised that a billionaire is trying to buy an election. We should be concerned that it is working. 

While there are limits to individual campaign contributions and PAC spending, there are no limits regarding how much a candidate can spend of their personal funds. As the cost of running for office and winning has increased significantly over time, the more valuable an ability to self-fund becomes. This year, billionaire Tom Steyer has bought his way to the debate stage, and Bloomberg forced a change in debate qualifications as he was the sole donor to his campaign. In 2018, 40 Congressional candidates self-funded a majority of their campaign finances. Though only 9 of those candidates won, those who spent the most had higher success, with Florida Republican Rick Scott winning after spending almost $64 million of his own wealth. The greater the wealth and the spending, the more likely you will have electoral success. 

And that is why Bloomberg has spent $500 million on advertising in three months: more than Obama’s 2012 campaign total spending, and less than one percent of Bloomberg’s net worth. Bloomberg is testing the lengths to which our electoral system is dominated by money. 

Bloomberg’s political spending far exceeds solely what he has spent in this election cycle. Bloomberg has been building a political machine since he left office in 2013 by donating significantly to a multitude of Democratic candidates and organizations. Their dependency on his donations has created a system of key Democratic players unwilling to criticize him for fear of losing his contributions. Bloomberg’s past donations are not altruistic philanthropy; they are financial threats. Bloomberg’s insurmountable fortune has prevented many from holding him accountable for his political and personal actions. 

If Bloomberg becomes the nominee or has moderate electoral success, it will set a precedent for billionaires to buy themselves elections. It is horrifying to imagine an election in which two racist, sexist billionaires outspend each other to the White House, and more horrifying to imagine the following presidential elections with different billionaires repeating the same process. His candidacy threatens the foundation of democracy: that the power rests in the hands of the people rather than in the wallets of the rich. 

But, we have not yet reached that point of despair. Both Sanders and Warren have raised a majority of their campaign funds through small donors, and both are beating Bloomberg significantly in the latest YouGov poll. Widespread, genuine support can lead to effective fundraising with real electoral outcomes.

Bloomberg can buy your attention, but he cannot buy your vote. We have to resist ceding our power to a billionaire buying his way out of accountability. Donate, volunteer, and vote for a candidate that will challenge a political system controlled by money rather than exploit it.

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Author: Emily Dalgleish

Emily Dalgleish ‘22, from Boulder, Colorado, is studying Political Science and Public Policy. She plays women’s club rugby, gives tours for Admissions, and works with the Eisenhower Institute’s Women and Leadership program. Emily is an enthusiast of lakes, road trips, and podcasts.

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