Americans can’t escape Bloomberg, either on TV or online. On YouTube, it seems that every other ad is for Bloomberg. On television, too, Bloomberg is everywhere. He spent around $10 million on a Super Bowl ad; the only other candidate to do so was President Trump. And along with these more traditional ad buys, Bloomberg has turned to unconventional means to boost support for his unconventional, dollars-over-debates campaign.
Bloomberg is also working with a company called Meme 2020 to boost his reach. Some popular meme pages on Instagram boost Bloomberg, including “Trashcan Paul” (1.8 million followers) and Sh*thead Steve (5.3 million followers). Bloomberg’s own team has come up with some bizarre meme ideas, including a meatball Mike tweet and dancing gingerbread men, so it’s a relief that he is now outsourcing some of his efforts to influencers.
Bloomberg isn’t the first candidate or campaign to use memes or meme culture to boost his candidacy. But in the past, most candidates’ meme appeal has been organic. Both Andrew Yang and Marianne Williamson were “meme candidates” this campaign cycle. Donald Trump has tweeted memes throughout his campaign and continues to do so, often to the horror of mainstream journalists. The meme tactic has helped campaigns to varying degrees, but Bloomberg is the first to put considerable financial support behind it.
In response to Bloomberg’s meme ad buys, Facebook and Instagram (a Facebook subsidiary) have changed their policies, distinguishing sponsored “branded content” from political ads. Before, all such content was banned, but the sites now will allow branded content from political candidates and campaigns provided that it is clearly marked.
Facebook had several reasons for making the change. Unlike political ads, this sponsored content doesn’t bring in any money for Facebook directly and is subject to onsite fact-checking because it is not posted directly by a candidate. Federal election laws don’t have a clear position on this issue, because technology moves far faster than laws. So it appears that Bloomberg will be able to meme to his heart’s delight.
And with this campaign, no meme will be wasted. Bloomberg joined the contest for Democratic presidential nominee far later than most, November 24 of last year. Recently, the former New York mayor and former Republican has been surging in the polls. According to Morning Consult, Bloomberg was polling at 18 percent among Democratic primary voters nationally on February 13. But he hasn’t been on the debate stage and he has zero delegates between the two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
One of the main explanations for this strange candidacy is Bloomberg’s focus on ad spending above all else. Since he announced, Bloomberg has spent over $400 million on ads, over double the next closest candidate, fellow billionaire Steyer, and over 10 times the spending of either Sanders or Buttigieg.
And right now, it appears to be working. As the old saying goes, Bloomberg is throwing enough mud at the wall that some of it is sticking.
But for how long? Bloomberg has broken double digits in the polls, but he has a lot of hurdles ahead. The Democratic base is moving to the left, and Bloomberg is a former Republican. His policies as mayor of New York, especially “stop and frisk,” along with some of his past comments on sex and race, are not sitting well with many Democrat voters. Bloomberg might be able to buy funny posts on Instagram, but will they be enough to overcome alleged comments, including saying “Kill it” when a woman announced she was pregnant, or telling a saleswoman to hire “some black” to take care of her baby? In today’s Democratic Party, that’s unlikely.