OPINION | What $620 million in campaign spending buys: American Samoa

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PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — As the 351 votes cast in the presidential caucus were pulled from a wooden box and read aloud inside the old Oasis bowling alley on Super Tuesday, it became clear that an upset was under way on this lush tropical archipelago in the South Pacific.

With 175 votes, Mike Bloomberg was finally seeing a payoff from his roughly $620 million campaign to persuade Americans to elect him president. He was winning in American Samoa, a tiny territory closer to New Zealand than the continental U.S.

For Mr. Bloomberg, who ended his campaign Wednesday, it was a Super Tuesday victory as lonely as a tiny speck of land in a vast ocean.

Though the billionaire former mayor of a city 7,200 miles away was relatively unknown here just a month ago, he mopped the floor with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who between them won all 14 states that voted on Tuesday but received only 68 votes total here.

He even bested the islands’ favorite daughter, Tulsi Gabbard, by a margin of 72 votes.

Ms. Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii, was born in American Samoa and still has relatives in this tightknit community where family rules every facet of life, including politics.

“It was a surprise,” said Karl Prendergast, who cast his vote for Ms. Gabbard. “I gave her the support of a Samoan sister.”

The results raised eyebrows on both sides of the political aisle in the territory of 55,000 people.

“Tulsi is a home girl from here,” said High Chief Taulapapa William Sword, chairman of the local Republican Party.

The reason for the upset was a campaign operation the size and scope of which had never been seen before for a presidential primary here.

In the weeks before the election, the Bloomberg campaign hired seven staffers and opened a campaign headquarters near the movie theater. How often has that happened in the history of American Samoa?

“Never, never ever,” said T’ia Reid, a local campaign staffer for the former New York City mayor. “That’s why we knew it was a special opportunity. We don’t get much attention.”

They put up Bloomberg billboards and signs, trying to appeal to locals in the Samoan language: “Mike Bloomberg mo Amerika Samoa 2020,” meaning “Mike Bloomberg for American Samoa 2020.”

Mr. Bloomberg launched a digital campaign that was enormous by the island’s standards. Between Feb. 4 and March 4, his campaign spent $1,651 on Facebook advertising, compared with $297 for all other Facebook advertising targeted at American Samoa during that time, according to the social-media company’s ad library report. Mr. Reid, a 36-year-old government worker, and his crew, which included a grandmother, a 19-year-old college student and a teacher, organized Students for Mike, Teachers for Mike, and Seniors for Mike. They secured the endorsement of a Samoan chief named Fa’alagiga Nina Tua’au-Glaude.

“We’ve seen a lot of negativity. There are people saying he spent $500 million here,” said Mr. Reid. “I feel it kind of downplays everything we’ve done.”

Some Samoans weren’t enthralled with the effort. Tisa Fa’amuli, the 72-year-old owner of Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, said she was skeptical of “Bloomingdale, or whatever his name is.”

Ms. Fa’amuli said that more people know Ms. Gabbard, but there isn’t a lot of interest in national politics. Residents of American Samoa are U.S. nationals, not citizens, and while they can caucus for the primary, they cannot vote in presidential elections.

“We’re 5,000 miles away from Washington,” she said. “We’re so far away, no one even knows where we are.”

Ms. Gabbard’s campaign started just a few days before Super Tuesday, said Tony Langkilde, who volunteered to run her campaign for no pay because he is a cousin of her father. “No money at all — it’s called family love,” he said.

On Super Tuesday, Aliitama Sotoa, chairman of the Democratic Party of American Samoa, announced each vote and sang Samoan songs while they were inspected by the campaigns and tallied. “Everybody was having a great time,” said Mr. Sotoa.

At first, Ms. Gabbard pulled ahead because the votes on the top of the pile were from a late surge of supporters from her village, Leloaloa. Then, Mr. Bloomberg zoomed ahead with the votes from those who had cast their ballots earlier in the morning.

In the aftermath of the upset, Mr. Bloomberg was awarded five delegates, and Ms. Gabbard got one. Then party officials realized that voting percentages should be recalculated once the lesser candidates were eliminated. Ms. Gabbard was hovering under 30% in the first count.

On Thursday, Ms. Gabbard notched a victory when the Democratic Party of American Samoa offered a formal apology for the miscalculation, saying that “after much consideration and recalculation, the correct distribution is four delegates for Bloomberg and two delegates for Tulsi.”

Ms. Gabbard’s campaign immediately sent out a press release requesting that “all media outlets correct their delegate counters.”

In the final analysis, everyone from shuttle drivers to Mr. Sotoa agreed that Ms. Gabbard should have started her campaign sooner, and that it wouldn’t have hurt if she had hopped on a five-hour flight from Hawaii to American Samoa to visit in person. Without it, Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign operation was too much to overcome.

“It was a surprise, but it was not a surprise,” said Mr. Sotoa.

Emily Glazer and Tarini Parti contributed to this article.

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