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50 days, $100 million: Can Bloomberg’s big Florida investment win it for Biden?

It’s the $100 million question in Florida politics.
Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during a break in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC.
Democratic presidential candidates, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden talk during a break in a Democratic presidential primary debate Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, hosted by NBC News and MSNBC. [ JOHN LOCHER | AP ]
Published Sep. 16, 2020
Updated Sep. 16, 2020

There’s not much you can’t buy for $100 million. A private jet. Your own island. The 2020 payrolls of both the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, with enough left over for Derek Jeter’s Davis Islands home.

What about a swing state? Florida is about to find out.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s nine-figure commitment to help former Vice President Joe Biden defeat President Donald Trump in Florida will be a political and advertising experiment of tremendous consequence. If successful, it could be a knockout blow for Trump, whose path to victory is limited without the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes. If not, Trump’s chances are much better and Bloomberg’s wallet is about 0.2 percent lighter.

There’s not much time for money, even a lot of money, to make a difference. The latest polls show Florida is split 50-50 and the pool of undecided voters is shrinking. County election offices will send out mail ballots to overseas residents this weekend and to the rest of the state next week. Early voting is just a month away.

What can $100 million do in less than 50 days?

“One hundred million dollars could buy you one percentage point in a Florida election,” said John Morgan, an Orlando lawyer used to writing big campaign checks. “The last three big elections were all decided by one point or less. One hundred million dollars can buy you an election.”

Even for a state that has seen its fair share of expensive races over the years, this kind last-minute cash infusion is striking. The immediate reaction likened the windfall to Biden winning the lottery. (Better actually. This week’s Powerball jackpot is estimated at $94 million.)

The most apt comparison is the final two weeks of the 2014 governor’s race, when then-Gov. Rick Scott spent $2 million a day from his own fortune to blanket the airwaves with negative advertisements about his opponent, Democrat Charlie Crist. People working in Florida politics at the time recall feeling the ground shift in the closing days. Scott, who hadn’t led in any major public polls for over a month, won by 76,000 votes.

Scott was obviously pleased with the result, because he did it again when he successfully ran for the Senate in 2018. He spent more than $70 million to defeat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, with $13 million coming in the closing weeks.

The strategy is so effective in Florida because so many of the state’s voters are older, and as a rule, older people generally watch more television, said Kevin Cate, a Democratic media consultant. Biden and Democratic groups are already outspending Trump on television in Florida in recent weeks, according to multiple reports.

“It’s not just game-changing, it’s election changing,” he said.

While working for Tom Steyer’s campaign, Cate saw first hand how Bloomberg’s dollars could shift political winds here. The New York media tycoon entered the Democratic primary late, and immediately spent hundreds of millions of dollars across the country trying to catch up, including in Florida.

And it worked. By mid-February, Bloomberg had surpassed Biden in Florida.

“It boggled the mind of most Twitter pundits how that happened and the only reason it happened is because of television,” Cate said.

Kevin Cate
Kevin Cate [ Courtesy of Kevin Cate ]

But buying time effectively on Florida’s airwaves is very expensive. The state is home to three of the country’s 18 largest media markets. It can cost $1 million just to ensure a single ad penetrates a market, meaning the average person will see it seven times, Cate said. Bloomberg’s investment allows Democrats to quadruple that exposure.

Steve Schale, CEO of the pro-Biden Super PAC Unite the Country, said the expense to running ads in Florida is cost-prohibitive to a lot of outside Democratic organizations. The Bloomberg’s $100 million will “have the impact to allow groups like mine to focus in other swing states" where airtime is much cheaper, he said.

Biden’s lead in the Sunshine State has dwindled. The Tampa Bay Times polling average, based on the last five statewide polls, estimates Biden leads Trump by a narrow 2.1 percentage points. That was a factor in Bloomberg’s decision to get involved, said Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami and a Bloomberg ally.

Bloomberg will spend the money through his own political action committee, Independence USA, and through contributions to other Democratic groups. He has already turned over Hawkfish, the digital media wing of his campaign that won rave reviews during his short-lived presidential run, to help get Democrats elected across the country.

“Looking at the map, looking at how things have developed, Florida has gotten closer than it was 30 days ago and that’s a concern,” Diaz said. “You begin to worry.”

Bloomberg was also prompted in part by Trump suggesting he may spend $100 million of his own money in the finals months of the race. The remark followed reports that Trump’s campaign no longer has a cash advantage over Biden, despite operating a campaign for nearly four years. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a Republican megadonor, may put in $20 million to $50 million of his own money to boost Trump, CNBC reported Wednesday.

If Florida is flooded with Biden’s ads in the waning days of the race, the Trump campaign will have to decide how to counter while juggling a dwindling war chest.

“Can you force him to dedicate more resources in Florida, the expensive and hideously overpriced state, and make him go and spend money like crazy and end up having to pull resources out of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan?” said Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist now working for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “There’s a little bank-shotting going on as well.”

All of this assumes that Bloomberg and whoever cashes his checks spend the money wisely. Biden has struggled to make inroads into Latino and Hispanic communities, and reaching those voters through Spanish-language ads will be a priority for this cash.

Evelyn Pérez-Verdía, a longtime Democratic consultant in Florida, said she hopes that local consultants with Hispanic and Latino backgrounds are engaged on how to best reach people. Past Democratic statewide campaigns have failed in part, she said, because they brought in outside people who didn’t know Florida’s disparate populations.

“That’s the key piece in this puzzle," Pérez-Verdía said.

Morgan said his confidence in Bloomberg rests in the billionaires media prowess. He expects a precision campaign that will utilize digital advertising, streaming services, social media marketing on top of traditional advertising to target voters.

“If Bloomberg decides to do this with a scalpel,” Morgan said. “He can be very effective.”