Did Tom Steyer buy his way into the Democratic debate? How he worked his way to the stage

Tom Steyer had a sudden change of heart when he went to Iowa in January. Worried he couldn’t compete with the plethora of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, he reversed course and made an unusual announcement.

He would not run for president.

But Steyer flipped yet again, declaring in July he would enter the race and spend at least $100 million on his presidential bid.

“I genuinely thought that there’d be so many people running that their whole situation would be covered,” Steyer said. “The reason I changed my mind was I felt as if no one was talking about the basic point in American politics, which is that the government is broken.”

Millions of dollars and thousands of handshakes later, Steyer will appear on the Democratic debate stage in Westerville, Ohio with 11 other candidates on Tuesday — several of whom don’t think the liberal billionaire environmental activist from San Francisco deserves a spot.

In an email to supporters, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said Steyer has “succeeded in buying his way up there.” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker wrote to supporters in a fundraising email that Steyer’s “ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else in this race.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders told MSNBC in July that he’s “a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy their political power.”

The former hedge fund manager who has led a national effort to impeach President Donald Trump has spent millions to secure small donations and to gain traction in the polls. He’s devoted nearly all of his energy thus far into the nation’s four earliest voting states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

“I think there’s an awful lot of people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada who still don’t know who I am,” Steyer said. “But for the ones who do, I think I’m saying something different. I have a very different history as an outsider and someone who built a business from scratch. There’s nobody else on that stage who has the same profile that I do.”

‘My message is resonating’

Steyer has spent an estimated $20 million on television ads, according to FiveThirtyEight. Data from Bully Pulpit Interactive, a D.C.-based communications agency tracking candidates’ online spending, shows Steyer has spent $8.4 million on digital ads through Facebook and Google since he launched his campaign in July. Steyer will release his first official campaign finance report with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.

Asked if the money is what has propelled him onto the debate stage, he insisted, “I’m winning because my message is resonating.”

Steyer, who lives in San Francisco and previously considered challenging Dianne Feinstein for the U.S. Senate, fell just one poll shy of meeting the Democratic National Committee’s criteria for the last debate. Steyer has since steadily gained steam in the four early states, allowing him to appear on the stage Tuesday night and at the fifth presidential debate scheduled for Nov. 20.

On Monday, Steyer received 2 percent in his first national poll. By contrast, he’s received as much as 4 percent support in qualifying state polls in Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He expects those numbers to rise as voters learn more about him.

Steyer has also met the DNC’s donor requirements for the next two debates by spending millions on political ads.

The nearly $30 million in advertising expenses has helped Steyer raise a total of $2 million from 166,119 donors, which exceeds the 130,000 and 165,000 individual donors the DNC has required for the October and November debates, respectively.

Steyer said he has no clue how much of his personal money has already been spent and is unsure what the breakdown looks like by state. “I have a very specific job in this campaign: My job is to try and talk to as many people as possible and explain what I stand for and who I am. That’s my job. All the questions you are asking me are for the campaign manager, which is not my job. You can ask me those questions, and every time, I’m going to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Donors give Steyer $2 million

Steyer redirected specific questions to his campaign, and the campaign declined to release additional data on how much it has spent from Steyer’s $100 million war chest.

Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for Steyer’s campaign, said the average donation size of $12 “proves that his message is penetrating every level of the American electorate and that Tom is extremely effective at building grassroots movements to create progressive change.”

The $12 average donation is also the smallest of the nine Democrats who have qualified for Tuesday’s debate and have already released their latest quarterly campaign financial report, suggesting Steyer could be spending a lot of money on ads in order to get a lot of small-dollar contributions.

Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had the next lowest donation size, with $18 and $26, respectively. Former Vice President Joe Biden had the highest donation size at $44.

The $2 million Steyer raised between July and September represents the smallest total amount among the nine candidates who have reported their numbers. Sanders and Warren raised the most at $25.3 million and $24.6 million, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Booker ranked at the bottom with just $4.8 million and $6 million raised.

Steyer’s takeaway is simple: He’s gained lots of ground lately but faces an uncertain future. With millions of potential voters likely to hear from him for the first time, it could mark a turning point — both for the best and the worst.

“This campaign is completely in flux as far as I’m concerned,” Steyer said. “I don’t know where it’s going. It’s completely in flux. There’s going to be a lot of surprises.”

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.