SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – Bernie Sanders’ campaign had built up what it described as the largest California operation of any Democratic presidential candidate – until billionaire Mike Bloomberg made a late entry into the race in November with seemingly bottomless resources.
Within two months, the former New York City mayor hired 200 employees in California, according to his campaign, dwarfing Sanders’ 80-strong team in the state while spending more on television ads nationally than all 10 other Democratic candidates combined.
Bloomberg’s unprecedented blitzkrieg – spending over a quarter-billion dollars nationwide on advertising alone since November – could upend the competition for California and the other 13 states that vote on March 3, otherwise known as Super Tuesday.
On Monday, as his rivals barnstorm across Iowa ahead of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses that evening, Bloomberg will be nearly 1,900 miles (3,060 km) away campaigning in California, the single biggest prize of the presidential primary with 10 times as many delegates available as in Iowa.
The contrast highlights both risks and opportunities of his unorthodox strategy: Bloomberg is skipping Iowa and three other states that vote in February and traditionally help anoint front-runners, instead employing his massive fortune to overwhelm opponents in much larger, delegate-rich states that will start voting from March.
It’s a path that has been tried unsuccessfully by others in the past, notably another former New York City mayor, Rudy Giuliani. But none had anywhere close to Bloomberg’s financial might.
There is evidence his spending onslaught is working. In the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, Bloomberg had risen to third nationally among Democratic and independent voters, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders but moving ahead of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“He is opening up field offices in California like I have never seen in a primary,” said Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento. “All the ingredients are in place but whether that can actually be baked into something real is unknown.”
In a single day, Super Tuesday puts up for grabs nearly a third of the 3,979 state delegates that will help select a Democratic nominee. By contrast, the four early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – award less than 4% of the delegates combined.
While most of the 11 Democratic presidential contenders have swarmed Iowa and New Hampshire since November, Bloomberg has had the rest of America largely to himself, pouring resources into states that don’t usually get such attention at this stage in the race.
This year’s Super Tuesday could prove particularly crucial, especially if the first four states fail to produce a decisive front-runner.
While national polls show moderate Biden and liberal firebrand Sanders jockeying for the lead, early state polls suggest a close four-way race that includes Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
If Biden prevails in Iowa and New Hampshire, he could consolidate support of the moderates and push Bloomberg aside before he even reaches a ballot, several Democratic strategists said.
On the other hand, a Sanders surge could open a door for Bloomberg, given uncertainty among moderate voters about the self-described Democratic socialist’s ability to beat Republican President Donald Trump in November.
“His fate in not in his own power,” said Bob Shrum, director of the USC Center for the Political Future in Los Angeles, referring to Bloomberg. “He is running on a bet that Biden won’t make it through and he becomes the big alternative to Sanders.”
In all, Bloomberg’s campaign has 800 staffers in place across 35 states, along with hundreds more at his campaign headquarters in New York.
In Texas, the second-largest state to vote on Super Tuesday after California, Bloomberg has a staff of 150. Warren, who appears to have the next biggest presence, has more than two dozen paid staffers in the state.
Bloomberg’s spending spree has also inflated the cost of television ads in Texas, potentially making it even harder for other candidates to keep up, an aide for a rival campaign said on condition of anonymity.
The other candidates’ Super Tuesday operations will soon get an influx of staffers, as organizers depart states like Iowa to bolster efforts elsewhere.
In a recent memo to supporters, Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, said the campaign has more than 1,000 staff members and more than 100 field offices in 31 states. That includes hundreds of organizers in states that vote after Super Tuesday, such as Pennsylvania and Washington.
“We expect this to be a long nomination fight and have built our campaign to sustain well past Super Tuesday and stay resilient no matter what breathless media narratives come when voting begins,” he wrote.
Sanders is also relying on enthusiastic volunteers. In Texas, volunteers have held more than 560 events for Sanders, while the candidate himself has visited four times this primary season.
In an interview with Reuters last month, Bloomberg said he was forced to skip the first four voting states because “all the political operatives were taken up” by the time he decided to enter the race. But he vowed to go everywhere else.
“You want to go where the voters are. And that means the big states … And I’d like to go to every one of the states,” he told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Michael Martina, James Oliphant and Simon Lewis; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Tom Brown