Billionaire Tom Steyer has been a presidential candidate for only a little over a month, but he is far closer to making the September Democratic presidential primary debate than senators, governors, and lawmakers who have been campaigning since the early months of the Trump administration.
Though Steyer has condemned corporate money in politics, the hedge fund king has no problem spending large amounts of his own money to help secure his status in the field.
Steyer announced Tuesday that he reached 130,000 individual donors, one of the Democratic National Committee’s requirements for inclusion in the fall debates. He’s earned 2% or more in three debate-qualifying polls and needs one more by Aug. 28 to make the September debate stage in Houston.
Despite joining the race later than every other presidential hopeful and not appearing in the first two rounds of debates, Steyer has surpassed candidates like New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard on debate qualification metrics.
Amassing 130,000 donors quickly is not unheard of, but usually, only candidates with high name recognition can do so. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign said it received 96,000 donors in the first 24 hours of his campaign, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke had 218,000 donors in the first 18 days of his campaign following a wealth of media covering his failed Senate bid.
But Steyer has 42% name recognition nationwide, according to Morning Consult, on par with presidential candidates Govs. Steve Bullock of Montana and Jay Inslee of Washington. Neither Inslee nor Bullock have announced reaching the 130,000 donor threshold or received any qualifying polls.
Steyer appears to have offset the challenges of joining the race late and having low name recognition with millions of dollars in advertisements along with voter data from advocacy organizations he founded and poured tens of millions of dollars into. He plans to spend at least $100 million of his own money to finance his White House bid.
From July 13 to Aug. 3, Steyer spent $ 2.6 million on Facebook and Google advertisements, more than any other presidential campaign, including President Trump. Many of the ads suggested a $1 donation to Steyer’s campaign so he could meet the donor threshold.
The Center for Responsive Politics identified more than $ 3.7 million in TV ad buys in early primary states during the first month of Steyer’s campaign.
Steyer’s ads in early voting states may have raised Steyer’s profile enough to help him obtain qualifying polls. While Steyer polls at 1% nationally in the presidential field, he gets 6% support among early primary state voters, according to Morning Consult. All three of Steyer’s qualifying polls are statewide polls in Iowa and South Carolina rather than national polls.
The Steyer campaign is also using voter data from activist group that he founded and poured tens of millions of dollars into over the last few years, the Trump impeachment group Need to Impeach and environmental advocacy group NextGen America. The campaign reportedly bought 8 million voter files from Need to Impeach and is renting more data from NextGen America.
It is unclear what proportion of Steyer’s 130,000 donations came through Need to Impeach or other Steyer-connected lists, digital ads, or other means. Steyer’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Bullock, who signed into law some of the strictest state-level campaign finance laws in the country, on Tuesday accused Steyer of buying his way into the presidential debates.
“I think the DNC rules were well-intentioned, but what it really has done is allowed a billionaire to buy a spot on the debate stage,” Bullock said. “Tom Steyer just spent $10 million to get 130,000. We’re getting to the point where we’re spending money online as opposed to actually talking to voters.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also hinted disapproval at Steyer’s campaign spending.
“In just 34 days, Tom’s leapfrogged over a dozen candidates and is on track to join me and eight others in qualifying for the next round of debates,” Booker wrote in a Wednesday fundraising email.
Low-tier candidates have previously complained that the DNC’s debate qualification rules incentivize ad spending over talking to voters.
“You have candidates now spending $25, they’re saying $50 to $75 to get a $1 contribution. That doen’t seem like a good use of our time and money,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan told the Washington Examiner in June.
Steyer said in a tweet Tuesday that much of the money from the 130,000 donors will help fund grassroots organizers. If the average donation to Steyer’s campaign was $49 — the average donation to Biden’s campaign from his campaign launch through the end of June, and higher than many other candidates — he will have just about made up the money spent on advertisements during his first month.
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