The Failure of Mike Bloomberg’s ‘Data-Driven’ Approach
By Tobias Hoonhout
National Review, Published November 12, 2020
Mike Bloomberg likes his money well spent, even in politics.
“‘I’m not in the business of wasting money — I want to put money into races that can be won with extra effort,’” top political adviser Kevin Sheekey recalled the billionaire telling him ahead of the 2018 midterms.
And after a spending spree in the 2018 midterms netted 21 Democratic wins out of 24 targeted races, the former New York City mayor decided to double down on his data-driven approach this cycle.
What came next was Hawkfish, a Bloomberg-backed firm founded in 2019 by Silicon Valley insiders with the aim of boosting Democrats’ digital efforts. The former New York mayor put the firm to work during his Democratic primary run, spending $100 million to buy up troves of voter databases. And even after Bloomberg’s campaign faltered, Hawkish saw itself as the best way to help Bloomberg achieve his ultimate goal of ensuring a blue wave in 2020.
The firm “argued for a plan where Bloomberg would no longer need the ground operation and consultants, and could scale down to the quants, the engineers and the data teams,” according to a Wired profile.
With a wealth of information at its fingertips, Hawkfish set out to help Democrats in the general election, inking contracts with the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Super PACs American Bridge and Unite the Country.
“Because we have this better raw data set than our competitors do, we’re able to help campaigns make smarter decisions about who they target for voter registration, who they target for persuasion, and then who they target for turnout,” Hawkfish senior consultant Mitch Stewart bragged in August.
But as the dust continues to settle from November 3, Hawkfish’s impact — and Bloomberg’s efforts writ large — appear to have fallen flat.
Despite spending over $100 million to boost Joe Biden in Florida, Ohio, and Texas, Bloomberg failed to turn any of the three battleground states blue. A $60 million outlay to defend the Democrat majority in the House and pick off vulnerable Republicans also fell flat, with the GOP having gained six seats so far — of the 21 races Bloomberg helped win in 2018, Republicans have flipped back three and are currently neck-and-neck in California’s 25th district.
Some have argued that the spending was successful in forcing Republicans to divert resources. “Our goal was to make Trump fight for a state he was taking for granted and draw resources from blue-wall states, allowing Joe Biden to become more competitive in those states,” Sheekey explained to CNBC.
Outgoing DCCC chair Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) echoed the rhetoric. “By building a big battlefield, triggering Republican retirements, and going on offense, we stretched Republicans,” she reportedly said on a Wednesday caucus call.
But others remain unconvinced. “I think the vendors should refund the money they charged,” prominent pollster Frank Luntz told National Review when asked about Bloomberg’s 2020 efforts.
At the state level, Republicans believe that Bloomberg’s strategy of flooding the airwaves and big data focus on mail-in and early-voting turnout failed to make up for the lack of a Democrat ground game — especially in Florida.
“Bloomberg seemed to have been playing a 2000-era ‘save it all to the end and go negative on TV’ in an election with massive vote by mail and in-person early voting,” Republican data analyst Chris Wilson said in an email. “Especially with the partisan split where most of the votes left at the end were hard core Republicans, he was talking when very few persuadables were left listening.”
On October 21, Hawkfish CEO Josh Mendelsohn told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that “the Trump team has far more ground to make up on election day than Democrats should.” While Florida Democrats led the early-vote margin by over 460,000 at that point, 13 days later the lead had shrunk to only 113,000. Hawkfish’s own modeling showed that Trump had narrowed the gap by five points from October 20 to November 2, but still showed Biden in the lead. Republicans surged on Election Day to overtake the race and boost Trump’s margin from 2016.
“Florida is not for sale,” Florida GOP executive director Helen Aguirre Ferré told National Review. “There is no substitute for a strong grassroots effort to connect with the community.”
Ferré explained that, under Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Republicans went to great lengths to register new voters and narrow the gap to 134,000 — “the smallest difference between the two parties in Florida history” — while Democrats “did nothing.”
“Florida’s impressive results on Election Day were a direct reflection on the entire Republican Party of Florida team effort, which saw record numbers of volunteers knocking on doors, making phone calls, putting up signs and donating their talents in myriad other ways,” she stated, pointing to shifts among Latino voters as proof of work paying off. While Bloomberg spent millions in get-out-the-vote advertising for Florida Latinos, Democrats lacked the same canvassing, with fears over the pandemic driving the party away from traditional efforts and towards Bloomberg’s cash.
Similar scenes played out in Ohio and Texas, where Bloomberg — citing internal polling — pumped $15 million in additional ad buys over the last week of the race. “We believe that Florida will go down to the wire, and we were looking for additional opportunities to expand the map,” Bloomberg aide Howard Wolfson told the New York Times. “Texas and Ohio present the best opportunities to do that, in our view.”
The result? Democrats faltered, with local officials complaining that the spurning of direct outreach in favor of macro trends hurt their chances
“What did we expect was going to happen?” South Texas Democrat organizer Amanda Salas told the Wall Street Journal after Trump made record gains in the traditionally blue area that Democrats ignored.
“The message that Democrats were pitching nationally, it was not going to resonate,” Representative Henry Cuellar (D., Texas) said bluntly. “Hispanics in South Texas or in South Florida and other areas, we might have certain similarities but then you have to fine-tune the messaging.”
This article was originally published here.