Steyer is generating another kind of frustration too. In addition to his massive spending, he’s reversed some of his previous positions on his fellow candidates. In May, for example, he tweeted that Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s climate plan “offers concrete steps we can take RIGHT NOW to end climate pollution.” In recent advertising, Steyer argues that his is the “strongest actionable climate plan.” In the past, he’s expressed support for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s aggressive approach to corporate corruption, but more recently, he’s grouped Warren in with establishment candidates who he says can’t fix the system.
“This shows that the guidelines set by the DNC can still be perverted by a wealthy individual who is trying to buy himself the nomination,” an aide to another rival campaign told me.
Standing in a parking lot at the edge of the Iowa State Fair—his first major event, on his first trip to the first voting state—Steyer told me that his ability to attract donors isn’t about his spending. “The question here is message, vision. The question here is, What do you have to say that resonates with people? It doesn’t matter what you spend. If you have nothing to say, it doesn’t matter,” Steyer told me. “Running grassroots campaigns, at some level, is about running a good campaign, but this is about whether you have something to say that’s different, that’s true, and that’s important.” Steyer has focused on three issues in his advocacy work: the influence of corporations, climate change, and impeaching Trump. A few minutes after he delivered a speech at the Des Moines Register’s Political Soapbox, I heard a man in the crowd say to a friend, “That’s the guy from the YouTube ads,” referring to Steyer’s frequent presence there.
Steyer told me he sees his White House bid as similar to the grassroots campaigns he’s run via NextGen America and Need to Impeach. But many Democrats argue that if he has an extra $100 million to put toward a presidential run, he should funnel it into other campaigns. (Steyer has repeatedly said that he’s continuing to engage in other political spending outside of his campaign.)
Heather Hargreaves, Steyer’s campaign manager, acknowledged that it’s a little awkward for a billionaire bankrolling his own run to be asking for cash. “Obviously, given the fact that he can self-finance and has said he is planning to self-finance, we have different challenges in getting donations,” she said.
Ahead of the DNC’s looming qualifying deadline, all but nine of the 25 Democratic candidates are rushing to try to meet the thresholds. That’s led to some discordant moments. In West Des Moines on Sunday morning, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York—the only candidate to appear alongside the Iowa Democratic legend Tom Harkin—closed out an emotional forum on disability rights by asking audience members to help her bring their cause to the debate stage, telling them she’s “less than 30,000 donors” away.