Billionaire Tom Steyer is begging for money.
“Can you contribute even one dollar?” Steyer says in a presidential campaign ad running on Facebook, where he is spending thousands of dollars seeking a relative handful of $1 donations in return. “That would help a lot.”
The hedge fund founder’s online panhandling is a surreal consequence of the Democratic Party’s presidential debate rules. Steyer launched his 2020 campaign a little over two weeks ago and plans to self-fund his White House run with $100 million of his own money. But he still needs 130,000 people to donate to him by August 28 (and get at least 2 percent in four polls) to qualify for the third primary debate in mid-September and prove his mettle against rival candidates.
The bars imposed by the DNC pose a major test of whether Steyer’s message and his millions can actually attract enough support for a viable presidential campaign — and fast. Just days out of the gate, Steyer’s campaign has no grassroots fundraising base of its own and is competing for votes with candidates who have been in the race for months. So Steyer is flooding Facebook and Google with ads — at least $927,000 worth so far — trying to buy up new donors and airing over $4.3 million on TV spots that could give him a boost in the polls.
“One dollar from you would help me get that much closer to the debate stage in September,” asks Steyer — who is worth approximately $1.6 billion — in another ad. “Can you please pitch in to help me defeat Trump?”
In a brief interview, Steyer said he is “on track” to meet the 130,000-donor threshold and added that getting 2 percent in two recent polls is proof that his message of “taking back democracy from corporations” and “tackling climate seems to be resonating.” Steyer and his campaign declined to say how many individual donors he has amassed so far.
About one-fifth of Steyer’s TV spending is on the national airwaves, but the vast majority is concentrated in the four early caucus and primary states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Positive poll results specifically in those states could help Steyer qualify for the debate, so getting his face on television is of special strategic value there.
“He’s blanketing the airwaves,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “He’s basically bought just enough name recognition” to get to 2 percent in polls.
Murray said Steyer’s quick jump in the polls is “exactly what the DNC didn’t want” when it made up the qualifying criteria for the debates, explaining that the committee was trying to incentivize candidates to build real grassroots support.
In an election featuring many candidates who are limiting their own fundraising — such as rejecting corporate PAC money, and in some cases rejecting closed-door fundraisers — critics are already coming down hard on Steyer for pouring his millions into his own bid for president.
“I’m a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who raises most of his money online, said to MSNBC shortly after Steyer launched his bid.
Steyer’s $100 million self-funding pledge may disincentivize grassroots donors from wanting to chip in to see him on the debate stage, said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for president.
“If Tom Steyer was answering Elizabeth Warren’s call on all candidates to reject super PACs and self-funding, there would be a theory of the case for grassroots donors to chip in,” Green said. “But it’s an especially hard argument for a billionaire self-funder to ask parents working multiple jobs to donate money.”
Steyer isn’t the only self-funder in the 2020 field: Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who made his millions in the financial industry, has also poured about $19 million of his own money into his campaign. Facing the same donor threshold that Steyer is trying to meet, Delaney memorably promised to give $2 of his own money to charities for every new donor he received, in what he called the “Delaney Debate Challenge.”
“Whatever money I put in this campaign, I’m never going to spend” in private life, Delaney said in an interview with POLITICO earlier this month. “So it actually, you know, the real question is, is there something better to do with that money to help society?”
Steyer’s defenders argue he has experience with grassroots movement-building and retail politics that make his candidacy more viable than any run-of-the-mill billionaire. Starting in 2013, Steyer used his money to build an idiosyncratic group of advocacy organizations, NextGen and Need to Impeach, and he has frequently traveled to college campuses and knocked on doors with the groups during the years since.
“People would treat him as any other canvasser, by and large,” said one former Steyer aide, who requested anonymity to speak about his former boss.
The skill-set developed on the ground will work in Steyer’s favor as he transitions into a presidential race, the former aide said, helping Steyer play the everyman and avoid being pegged as out-of-touch, an accusation that dogged 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, another wealthy presidential candidate.
Another one of Steyer’s advantages is the email list developed by Need to Impeach, which counts more than 8 million members and has been rented by the presidential campaign. The list is a jumping-off point for Steyer’s campaign to build a trove of supporters willing to chip in for the debate — or later on, to vote for the candidate.
Large email lists are valuable in politics. Steyer’s Need to Impeach list "may be more of an asset to him than being a self-funder," said Taryn Rosenkranz, founder of the firm New Blue Interactive.
"Building a list takes time. Coming into the presidential debate, it’s advantageous for him to come in with a list," Rosenkranz said.
Through the groups, Steyer also spent millions of dollars airing television ads featuring himself and staging town hall events where he was the star and moderator — both opportunities for him to build name id in states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Steyer has already hit 2 percent in a CBS News/YouGov online poll of Iowa and a Monmouth University poll in South Carolina that was released this week. Some established candidates — including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Delaney — still haven’t hit that polling mark once, even though they’ve been included in far more surveys over the course of the presidential race.
In fact, most candidates in the 25 person field have not come close to clearing the qualifications for the third debate. According to a POLITICO analysis, just six candidates have hit both of those thresholds and have qualified. An additional four have hit one of the two requirements, but not both.
And so, in the meantime, Steyer has joined them in the plaintive race for donors.
“I need to know if I can count on you again,” Steyer says in another one of his online ads.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine