Billionaire Doug Bergum’s Presidential Run Shows Campaigns Are Tourism for Rich People Now

North Dakota’s Doug Bergum is a billionaire governor running an impossibly bland, popularity-free campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Why is he running, other than that he’s rich and he can? We have no idea.

Republican presidential candidate and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum speaks on October 28, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Few things in politics are ever entirely certain, but it can safely be said that Doug Bergum is not going to win the Republican nomination for president. Having declared his candidacy in June, the North Dakota governor has been waging an uphill battle against the margin of error ever since — sitting at an average of just 0.7 percent in the current primary polling and barely registering in most surveys of likely GOP primaries voters. Donald Trump’s lead over his best-known rivals has consistently remained in the high double digits. But if the likes of Chris Christie, former vice president Mike Pence (who officially dropped out of the race last week), and Nikki Haley are running absurdly quixotic campaigns with little to no chance of success, Bergum is truly in a class of his own.

Why is Bergum running? Futile presidential campaigns sometimes serve a purpose, even if it’s just a narrowly self-interested one. Vivek Ramaswamy, who has never held elected office and is easily the most successful of this year’s GOP primary no-hopers, clearly hopes to establish a national profile with a view to being selected as someone’s running mate or launching a better-placed candidacy in a few years. Christie seems to be auditioning for a postelection gig at somewhere like MSNBC.

These aren’t especially laudable reasons for running, but they are at least reasons. Occasionally, a margin-of-error candidate like Bergum will enter a presidential race out of sheer ideological eccentricity — hoping, perhaps, to finally vanquish the scourge of seat-belt laws once and for all or insist on America’s return to the gold standard.

Peruse Bergum’s campaign website, however, and you’ll see little more than the standard chamber of commerce–approved conservative boilerplate. Bergum introduces himself as a “governor and a business leader” whose top priorities include “the economy, energy, and national security.” As far as any actual platform, his pitch is comically lacking in detail or specifics.

The North Dakota governor thinks the “economy needs to be the absolute top priority” because “it’s the main thing” that “propels everything else.” He’s a card-carrying fan of innovation and thinks that excessive regulation is stifling it (“regulation looks backward and innovation looks towards the future”). He proposes to “get inflation under control,” cut taxes, and reduce the price of gasoline in order to “help people realize their fullest potential.” As a former business leader “who built a software company that served 140,000 different businesses in 132 countries,” he also “understands [that] the future is going to be won at the intersection of innovation and energy” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean).

Despite the novelty of his campaign pitch (a Republican governor who champions innovation and wants to cut taxes, at long last . . .), Bergum’s polling remains so bad he’ll likely fail to qualify for the third GOP presidential debate in Miami next week. But it’s not for lack of trying. As the New York Times reported late last month, his campaign has spent a decidedly nontrivial $13 million thus far — more than the campaigns of Haley, Christie, and Pence put together. Thanks to his personal wealth, in fact, Bergum has already lent his campaign about $12 million, compared to just $3 million coming in from donations.

Whatever Bergum’s real motivation for running may be, this is the real takeaway from his campaign. If you’re a rich person in the United States today — at a reported net worth of $1.1 billion, Bergum is one of the country’s wealthiest governors — it is now possible to both launch and sustain a presidential campaign with little to no policy agenda, negative charisma, and essentially zero popular support. Just turn on the spigot, keep the cash flowing, and you can astroturf an entire primary run despite having no compelling case for doing so.

Ahead of the first GOP primary debate in August, Bergum’s campaign even handed out $20 gift cards to anyone who donated a dollar, just so he could pass the individual donor threshold required to qualify. Of the $11 million raised by his super PAC Best of America by the end of June, all or most came from only about two dozen wealthy supporters.

To call a campaign like Bergum’s a mockery of the democratic process would be putting it mildly. Like Tom Steyer and John Delaney before him, the North Dakota governor is living proof that the United States’ oligarch-friendly campaign finance laws have helped turn presidential campaigns into an exotic new frontier of tourism for the exorbitantly rich.

Still, he’s also living proof that even in today’s money-dominated political landscape, there remains a ceiling on what personal wealth can buy in lieu of actual popular support. Tens of millions of dollars and a greasy gift card scheme may have got Bergum a few headlines and a couple of debate appearances, but they have yet to help him crack 1 percent in the polls.

In spite of everything, it seems, oligarchy still has limits.