This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner on February 2, 2020.
Millions of people will tune in to watch the NFL’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. Reliably the most-watched television event of the year, advertisers pay huge sums to reach the game’s massive audience. But this year will have a new twist.
Alongside the car commercials and beer ads, political ads will also hit the air. President Trump and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg each spent more than $10 million for 60 seconds of ad time during the game. They will become the first political candidates to air national advertisements during a Super Bowl since those ads have been tracked — and possibly ever.
Expensive political ads during the country’s most-watched TV event are sure to make some people shake their heads. Many turn to sports for an escape from things such as politics. Others will wonder how candidates from average backgrounds can compete against opponents who can afford $10 million Super Bowl ads.
These reactions are themselves cause for comfort in the face of expensive advertising. People are often unpersuaded by the biggest spenders or are even put off by them. Ads give candidates a platform, but the voters still have to like what they see. Just ask Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton.
Most viable presidential campaigns eventually raise tens of millions of dollars. But down the ballot, budget campaigns also score big upsets. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the star of the 2018 midterm elections after defeating incumbent Joe Crowley in a primary where she was outspent 18-to-1. In the 2014 midterm elections, Republican Dave Brat ousted then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary where Cantor outspent Brat 40-to-1.
Bloomberg’s campaign spending is undeniably a special case. Every election seems to bring the same headlines about big-spending political campaigns. But so far, 2020 really is different.
Bloomberg’s campaign has spent over $250 million on advertising. Fellow billionaire candidate Tom Steyer has spent nearly $140 million. No other Democratic candidate has spent even $30 million on ads.
A strong campaign ad can make a difference in how the public perceives a candidate. But the ads that become famous in political history — such as the “Daisy” ad aired by President Lyndon Johnson or President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” — are famous for their content, not the amount spent on them.
Bloomberg has also hired a massive staff comparable to a major party nominee’s staff in the weeks leading up to a general election. His campaign has roughly 800 employees, about the same as Hillary Clinton’s campaign a month before the 2016 election and several times more than Trump’s.
Despite this, national polls still show both Bloomberg and Steyer trailing the top tier of candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Also notable is that before entering the race, Bloomberg was already a national figure as a former mayor of New York City. That reputation is likely helping Bloomberg surpass fellow big-spender Tom Steyer.
Even with eye-popping ad buys, this unique 2020 primary could go the way of most. Candidates who rely on their pocketbooks instead of their supporters rarely succeed. Self-funding candidates have a uniquely poor track record in politics.
At Sunday’s Super Bowl, the team with the most points will win. But in elections, it won’t always be the biggest spender who goes home victorious. We should never forget that it’s the voters, not advertisers, who hold power in our democracy.
Political nerds may enjoy the novelty of campaign ads in the Super Bowl. Everyone else can forget about them as quickly as another ad for Doritos.