AURORA, CO – For any other candidate, a crowd of just 38 voters at a high-profile policy announcement might be cause for panic. But Michael Bloomberg is not just any candidate.
The New York billionaire unveiled his signature plan to end gun violence this week at an invitation-only event in suburban Denver that highlighted his effort to rewrite the rules of presidential politics by betting hundreds of millions of dollars that he can carve his own path to the presidency.
As his chief primary rivals courted voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Bloomberg bypassed the early voting states in favor of Colorado, a state that has been largely ignored this presidential season because it falls later on the primary calendar. In addition to the modest gathering on Thursday, Bloomberg is reaching millions of voters nationwide with an unprecedented advertising campaign that’s flooding local television markets in all 50 states.
And in the coming days, he’ll begin to unveil teams of paid campaign operatives in close to 30 states.
“We will have more people and be challenging and competing in more states at the same time than anyone ever has," said Dan Kanninen, a former veteran of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns who now serves as the architect of Bloomberg's sprawling multi-state strategy.
“Most people think about this race as a series of consecutive contests,” Kanninen said in an interview. “We think about this race as a conversation with the American people everywhere at once.”
It is an ambitious and untested approach backed by Bloomberg's billions that has already sparked fierce resistance from the Democratic Party's progressive base and traditional power brokers in early voting states. Bloomberg is ignoring conventional wisdom and the first four states on the primary calendar — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — and betting everything on the 25 states that will hold primary contests in March and several more in April.
Liberal leaders Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have accused him of trying to buy the nomination, while questioning his dedication to progressive values. Even at his Thursday event in Aurora, Colorado, some attendees who cheered his years-long fight against gun violence raised concerns about his viability as a candidate and the pace of his early spending.
“Personally, it gives me pause. I don’t like it when a candidate self funds their campaign,” said Dawn Reinfeld, a gun-control activist. “But I’m willing to wait and see. We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
Indeed, perhaps no political figure has spent more to promote progressive priorities in recent years than Bloomberg, a 77-year-old former New York City mayor who created a network of organizations dedicated to gun violence, climate change and immigration. And in the history of presidential politics, no candidate has spent more in the opening days of his or her campaign.
The lifelong businessman is embarking on a multi-pronged strategy that may ultimately cost him $1 billion to convince voters that his record and dedication to progressive priorities is worthy of the Democratic nomination, even if his tone and delivery is far more moderate.
He's already spent more than $50 million on television ads over the first two weeks of his campaign.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who was forced to abandon his own moderate bid for president in August, suggested that the chasm between the party's energized liberal base and centrist presidential contenders like Bloomberg isn't as wide as many people think.
“Literally, he’s one of the greatest entrepreneurs in history,” Hickenlooper said in an interview, noting that he's still formally backing home-state Sen. Michael Bennet's campaign. “I have tremendous respect for Michael Bloomberg and everything he’s done.”
Yet Hickenlooper suggested that all the money in the world could not buy a presidential nomination.
“Historically, people who have spent immense amounts of money generally haven’t succeeded,” he said. “I’m not saying that has anything to do with Mayor Bloomberg at all — I say that only as a way of saying that if he succeeds it won’t be because of the size of his spend. It’ll be because his message resonates.”
Bloomberg’s team concedes that it will take some time for his message to catch on. He’s in the process of building a massive political machine that his campaign believes will help expand his appeal.
Kanninen said he's assembling a team capable of “operating on a scale that no one else has ever tried before.”
He’s in the midst of hiring teams of political operatives across roughly 30 primary states, including a handful of general election battlegrounds like such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. The plan calls for Bloomberg to be in position to actively push back against President Donald Trump's campaign in key general election states while simultaneously courting primary voters in every state that hosts a Democratic contest in March in addition to delegate-rich April contest in places like Maryland and New York.
“We're going to be everywhere,” Kanninen said.
The Democratic Party’s energized liberal base has been slow to embrace the New York billionaire, however.
Bloomberg earned two modest endorsements on Thursday in Colorado: one from the pastor of the Christian center that hosted the event and the other from state Rep. Mike Sullivan, whose son was killed in a 2012 mass shooting at a nearby movie theater. He's earned a handful more from mayors and former mayors in South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida.
Annette Moore, another gun-control activist invited to the Aurora event, said she wasn’t ready to commit to Bloomberg.
“I’m uneasy about the concept of buying his way into an election,” Moore said. “On the other hand, it’s going to take a lot of money to defeat Donald Trump.”