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Why Bloomberg bet on memes and influencers this Super Tuesday

As millions of people watched Democratic presidential candidates take the stage in Des Moines for the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign launched its own plea to voters: an image of Bloomberg’s stoic face superimposed on a plate of marinara-drenched meatballs.

“Test your political knowledge,” read the tweet from the campaign, whose candidate was not on the stage that night. “SPOT THE MEATBALL THAT LOOKS LIKE MIKE.”

The meatball tweet embodied Bloomberg’s unconventional campaign. The billionaire is self-funding his presidential bid, and his millions are propelling an aggressive media strategy that’s taking attention and voters away from candidates who have spent the last year on the campaign trail.

“When you run to be a senator or a president or a governor you really have to rely on a pretty big network of people. You need a local activist to get your name out. You need a network of donors, people who will vouch for you,” Fabio Rojas, a sociology professor at Indiana University, said. “Bloomberg is completely bypassing that.”

The strategy will be put to the test on Super Tuesday, when Bloomberg’s name will be on the ballot for the first time. Bloomberg opted not to campaign in the four early-voting states, and has only taken the stage in one debate, choosing instead to rely on a limitless war chest and nontraditional advertising strategy in an effort to upend the Democratic primary race.

According to financial reports and online spending trackers, the former mayor has spent more than $100 million so far in his bid on online advertising. He’s also spent $501 million on digital, television and radio advertising, surpassing the previous record of $306 million set by former President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

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The spending has not just gone to 10-second ads before YouTube videos, or sponsored posts in the middle of Facebook newsfeeds. Instead, the Bloomberg campaign is employing strategies rarely seen in the political sphere, such as hiring social media influencers to post on behalf of the candidate.

“It’s certainly leapfrogging where a lot of political campaigns have been in terms of digital tactics and strategies,” said Tara McGowan, the founder and CEO of the democratic digital strategy group Acronym.

Of course, Bloomberg isn’t the only candidate to try this approach in 2020. Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign reached out to agencies that manage social media influencers “early on,” said the campaign’s manager, Zach Graumann.

“We actually thought it would be a really innovative way to market, and [we] still believe that,” he said. “Their reach is very, very powerful, particularly with younger voters or younger people.”

Ultimately, Graumann said, the campaign did not need to use influencers “because we actually became a meme ourselves.” Yang’s supporters, nicknamed the “Yang Gang,” were prolific on social media throughout the first-time presidential candidate’s run for the Democratic nomination. Yang suspended his campaign on Feb. 11.

While using these so-called influencers to sell a brand or products are standard practices in corporate marketing, regulations around political ads — and how they apply to things like social media influencers — are far behind.

The Federal Elections Commission writes the rules that regulate political advertising. But those regulations have not been updated since 2006, Ellen Weintraub, an FEC commissioner, said in an interview. The six-member FEC does not have enough commissioners to enact any new regulations or update existing ones. The commission needs four members for a quorum, and currently has three. According to the Congressional Record, the U.S. Senate received a nomination on Feb. 27 for attorney James E. Trainor III to be made an FEC commissioner. The Senate has not yet acted on this nomination.

Going back to 2006 is “an eternity in internet years,” Weintraub said. “We’re looking at a whole different ecosystem online.”

Though rules governing disclaimers on online political ads were written “several eons ago,” Weintraub wrote in a December memo, they still apply: “For the moment, the existing law on internal communication disclaimers gets the job done.”

But when a campaign pays a social media influencer to create or post content — as Bloomberg’s has done — it’s a bit of a gray area, Weintraub said.

“Honestly, [it’s] legally unclear. The FEC has not opined on this scenario,” she said. “I think the best practice would be to view it as a political ad.”

Without stricter federal oversight, social media companies have implemented their own policies when it comes to transparency and political ads. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, announced in January that it would not limit the targeting of political ads to certain audiences.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced last October that political advertising on the platform will be banned globally. Google, which owns YouTube, said in November it would limit audience targeting for election advertising.

But influencers present a more nuanced test of those rules.

“There’s a big difference between a candidate paying for memes to be made and put on a massive platform than [users on] that platform thinking that the candidate is interesting and making a meme themselves because they think people will engage around it,” Graumann said, adding that the FEC needs to step in on the issue.

Facebook said last month that influencers will be allowed to produce sponsored content for political campaigns on its platforms, but they had to follow the company’s disclosure rules — including the use of Facebook’s and Instagram’s disclaimer tools at the top of each post that show the content is a “paid partnership” or “paid for.”

“We don’t have visibility into financial relationships taking place off our platforms, which is why we’ve asked campaigns and creators to use our disclosure tools,” Facebook spokesperson Stephanie Chan told the NewsHour in an email. “On the broader topic of political branded content, we welcome clearer guidelines from regulators.”

Setting aside the questions over regulation, there is evidence that Bloomberg’s heavy advertising can help win over some support. A 2017 study shows that political ads are more likely to persuade voters in a primary race than a general election, because primary voters are focused on choosing the candidate that best represents their party.

And polls show Democratic voters are preoccupied with choosing a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump. To that end, Bloomberg’s advertising has been less biographical and policy-focused, and more centered around his claims of electability.

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According to Carolyn Freeman, a digital advertising manager for Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign, that strategy could help Bloomberg as the campaign attempts to convert ad consumers to Bloomberg voters.

In a crowded field of candidates who share more in common than not, a strong digital presence can help a candidate break out, Freeman said.

The meatball tweet shows a 78-year-old billionaire is a “really relatable, friendly guy, like your dad or like an older friend, ” she said, “rather than like this billionaire who sort of just plummeted into the race.”

But Graumann, Yang’s campaign manager, said it remains to be seen whether the strategy actually attracts younger voters to the polls.

“They have strong opinions and they have candidate preferences, but they don’t always vote,” he said. “I do think it’s a potential game changer,” he added, but “I don’t think anyone’s mastered it yet.”

Given the large field of primary candidates, and Bloomberg’s late entry into the race, it has been crucial for Bloomberg to “get in front of as many eyes as possible, both with traditional advertising, but also using social media,” said Jason Mollica, a communications professor at American University.

Mollica said Bloomberg’s campaign has smartly treated the 78-year-old like a “brand,” similar to a product an Instagram influencer might promote on their grid.

“Social audiences and digital audiences want something very quick,” Mollica said. Bloomberg is “hitting people where he knows they’re going to be. And that’s what brands do every day.”

Bloomberg’s brand has taken hits as he’s risen in the polls since joining the race.

A Morning Consult poll found his favorability numbers dropped 20 points after his first debate in February in Las Vegas, where he faced attacks from nearly every candidate on stage.

Since entering the race, Bloomberg has also struggled to explain his support for the controversial stop-and-frisk policy when he was mayor. He also recently agreed to release three women from the nondisclosure agreements they signed after alleging Bloomberg engaged in sexual harassment in the workplace.

As Bloomberg keeps spending millions online, the episodes underscored a potential weakness, said McGowan of Acronym.

“We saw a huge disconnect between Bloomberg, the candidate, and his campaign online when he was on the debate stage,” she said. “Trump has been running a very effective, authentic-to-his-brands digital campaign since he was elected. And we are gonna have to do the same if we want to beat him in November.”

The Trump campaign has essentially been running it’s re-election campaign online since Inauguration Day in 2017.

Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale has said that digital advertising is the centerpiece of the re-election effort. The campaign has poured millions into ads targeting voters, and pushing out the president’s message without filtering it through the traditional media. The campaign has reserved the banner ad space at the top of YouTube’s homepage on Election Day — some of the priciest online real estate.