Half a billion dollars in campaign ads didn’t add up to much for Mike Bloomberg.
But for Joe Biden, 12 words were invaluable.
“I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us,” intoned U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, the deeply respected Democrat from South Carolina whose pre-primary endorsement helped jolt the former vice president’s bid for the party’s nomination back to life.
The rest, in every sense, is history. Biden gave a vivid victory speech in which Democrats saw the candidate they thought they were getting when they made him the early front-runner.
Next, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar withdrew and threw their support to Biden at a Dallas rally. Texan Beto O’Rourke, who had scuttled his bid weeks earlier, lent his support, too.
And then, three days after his Palmetto State comeback, a superlative Super Tuesday turnout resulted in Biden winning 10 out of 14 states.
But not the one territory, American Samoa, that voted. Bloomberg won there.
That return on investment belied the billionaire’s business savvy. In fact, it showed that the strategy of skipping the first four contests in favor of mass saturation advertising wasn’t the way to sway voters, even in an era when the political-media complex is one of the defining dynamics of American life.
Ever data-driven, Bloomberg read the spread sheet — and the political tea leaves — and stopped throwing good money after bad. On Wednesday he also dropped out and endorsed Biden.
The miscalculation wasn’t necessarily due to the ads themselves, which were pretty good, at least as far as campaign commercials go.
“They were solid Bs,” said Bill Hillsman, the founder of North Woods Advertising. Hillsman has created A+ political ads for several outsider candidates, including the iconic campaigns for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura that are considered among the genre’s best.
Hillsman said that while there weren’t any Bloomberg ads that “got the country talking,” they were well-timed with ties to President Donald Trump’s perceived vulnerabilities.
Biden’s ads might merit a grade of incomplete. Kantar Media said he had only spent about $16 million through Super Tuesday — a fraction of the $55 million Bernie Sanders spent and just a sliver of the fortune invested by Bloomberg.
And yet Biden’s — or more accurately, Clyburn’s — message resonated. “You can’t buy that type of publicity,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
West, who figuratively and literally wrote the book on political advertising (“Air Wars”), said that the role of campaign commercials “is less important at this point. This has not been a year when campaign ads drove the agenda.”
Indeed, instead of iconic ads like Ronald Reagan’s “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (“It’s morning again in America”), a debate night altered this race when Elizabeth Warren went to war with Bloomberg over his personal, professional and political history.
And news coverage, or what pols call “earned media,” has superseded paid media in impact this election. But what seemed to matter most is the meta-narrative of the campaign itself, as voters became pundits gaming out the best candidate to defeat Trump.
“People see the stakes of this election as enormously high,” West said. “It’s not just that people have differences on the issues with Trump, many people see him as a threat to American democracy itself, and so that alters the nature of the campaign and it changes how people get information and how they evaluate information. They want to be sure in their decision because they know there’s only one chance to get rid of Trump.”
So voters see how the candidates can connect with, well, voters — as well as with Washington players and the press. Combined with increasing cynicism about commercialism in general and the specific technological ability to avoid advertising, campaign ads have reduced influence in an ever-fluid political environment.
Social media is a significant factor, too, said West, who added, “ads have lost credibility” and that “people discount the information gained from [political] advertisement.”
And yet candidates — and the parties themselves — still make fundraising a factor in who gets to debate. And presidential prospects as well as already-elected lawmakers spend a disproportionate time dialing for dollars or making the obligatory mention of their websites when they offer closing statements in debates. While Bloomberg’s expensive experiment shows “you can’t buy elections,” West said that candidates still need ads. But “they can’t be the complete strategy.”
Hillsman said that “the best of all possible circumstances is everything happens at once” — social media, earned media and advertising, which can still move the needle quickest “if you’re trying to move poll numbers in a short period of time,” which Bloomberg initially did.
But in the end Biden — the former and current front-runner — was boosted not by well-crafted ads, but well-cultivated relationships that were captured in a catchphrase better than any ad’s tagline: “Joe knows us.”
Even in this Citizens United-era of unlimited political spending, united citizens still matter more than campaign cash.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.