Michael Bloomberg didn't wait long to start throwing his money around.
As of late Friday, the billionaire former mayor of New York who is now running for president had reserved some $34 million in TV ad time nationwide, as Politico reported. It was the largest single-week ad spree in political history, according to tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Meanwhile, Bloomberg was already on his way to spending $100 million on digital ads going after President Donald Trump—and inviting people to sign up for his mailing lists along the way.
That a rich person would throw their personal fortune into an American election campaign is of course far from novel. From Ross Perot to Steve Forbes to Mitt Romney, there's a long tradition of capitalizing on a political culture that treats money as speech in hopes of winning the ultimate prize. Even Donald Trump, illicit and dubious though his wealth may be, plowed millions into his own long-shot campaign in 2016.
But Bloomberg, who has repeatedly changed his party affiliation over the years, and of course is wildly out of step (at least historically) with Democratic primary voters on a lot of things, including race, gender, and taxing rich people like himself, represents something different. With a fortune far exceeding the above-mentioned forebears, Bloomberg—especially when viewed as a potential major-party alternative to Trump—is embracing a dystopian vision of modern politics, where vast personal wealth rules all.
"People have long decried 'elections for sale' and wealthy candidates 'buying office,' but this particular strategy feels new," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog.
It's long been clear that Tump's populism, so central to his shocking win, was fake—his dismantling of consumer protections and 1-percent-first economic policies make that plain. Likewise, part of what's novel about Bloomberg's approach, as the New York Times reported, is his apparent tactical conceit of (at least initially) avoiding lots of voter interaction in favor of splurging:
Should Mr. Bloomberg proceed with such a campaign, he would be attempting to take a high-risk route to the Democratic nomination that has never succeeded in modern politics — one that shuns the town hall meetings and door-to-door campaigning that characterize states like Iowa and New Hampshire, and relies instead on a sustained and costly campaign of paid advertising and canvassing on a grand scale.
Then again, no one had ever changed the law to run for a third term as mayor of America's largest city before, either. Bloomberg’s tack is one that may have currency in an era when a likely tax cheat accused of serially harassing and assaulting women is living in the White House, but it's eyebrow-raising to money-in-politics watchers, too.
"We’re living in a time when many feel that political norms have been upended and 'anything is possible,' which gives rise to more anxiety about what could happen," Krumholz said.
In an essay for the New Republic Monday, financial critic Alexis Goldstein laid out what might be dismissed as a cynical interpretation of Bloomberg's run, but a compelling one nonetheless. The idea is that he doesn't want to see his own billions curbed by the likes of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who support wealth taxes on people like him, and even if he doesn't think he can win, maybe he can ensure they lose.
"Bloomberg’s forthcoming $34 million ad purchase, which he plans to unleash on the world next week, is 1.1% of the amount he’d owe each year under the Warren plan," Goldstein writes, describing it as a classic Wall Street hedge against potentially worse losses. She adds, "To offset the risk of his fortune being diminished, and then appropriated in a democratic process which includes many mechanisms for accountability, Bloomberg is clearly more than willing to spend a fraction of what he stands to be taxed."
In an email, Stu Loeser, a spokesman for Bloomberg, said he had "never taken a campaign contribution, and because of that New Yorkers were able to know that he made decisions based on values and data, never because of contributions." The spokesman also said the former mayor generally supported bolstering local campaign finance laws, and had a record of supporting ballot access.
Whether Bloomberg is in this for reasons of vanity or selfishness or something nobler, the actual polling out there—and the general trends in the Democratic electorate—suggest he has virtually no shot at winning this thing. As FiveThirtyEight reported, in those national polls that have included him in recent weeks, he's clocked in at about 2 percent support. And surveys suggest Democratic primary voters are mostly content with their options and probably do not desperately crave yet another rich savior to satiate the donor class and make things less eerie in Wall Street boardrooms.
But sussing out whether Bloomberg can appeal to Democrats by tacking left and railing against corruption—which as a self-funded rich person eschewing all donations, he can do—is one thing. That Americans will see two of their highest-profile political choices consist of two rich guys from New York City who swam in the same social circles (and both seem to hold Normal People in equally low regard) is another.
This story has been updated to include comment from the Bloomberg campaign received after publication.
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