The DNC Debate Rules Are a Game

Just weeks into his presidential campaign, the billionaire activist Tom Steyer is close to qualifying for the contests in Houston.

The Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. People are surrounding him. One person, in the foreground, is pointing a camera at him.
Eric Thayer / Reuters

DES MOINES, Iowa—Qualifying for the Democratic debates has become a game, and Tom Steyer has more than enough money to play it. In the span of five weeks, the San Francisco–based billionaire activist has channeled millions of dollars of his own money into trying to win a spot on the stage in September. If the effort works—and he’s getting close—Steyer could beat out many major candidates who have been running for president for months.

One major investment: His campaign bought 8 million voter files compiled by the group Need to Impeach and is renting data from NexGen America, two advocacy organizations that Steyer himself founded and still funds. The move gives his team access to information on scores of people. But his ability to get this close to qualifying so quickly is also a reflection of the system set up this cycle by the Democratic National Committee. By telling candidates they need a minimum of 130,000 donors to compete at the next debates, the party has compelled campaigns to devote significant energy to persuading voters to donate minuscule amounts of money so the candidates can make the stage—money that’s not necessarily representative of voters’ genuine support. With just two weeks to go before the August 28 cutoff date for qualifying, well-established senators and governors are on the verge of being locked out even as unconventional candidates are allowed in.

Steyer’s campaign is announcing today that he’s cleared the donor threshold. And he’s nearly there on the DNC’s second requirement: Steyer has hit at least 2 percent in three recent polls evaluating voter support. If he hits 2 percent in one more—which is likely, given his performance in public polling overall—he’ll be guaranteed a spot in the next presidential debates in Houston, which would be his first appearance. The polls have likely been nudged along by Steyer’s massive advertising push since he announced his campaign last month: The $7 million he’s put into TV commercials alone is more money than most of the other campaigns have raised overall, and it’s just a sliver of the at least $100 million he’s pledged to spend. According to publicly available data, Steyer has already spent $2.5 million on digital ads, more than any other candidate, including President Donald Trump.

The entire first month of Steyer’s campaign was geared toward getting into the debates. Using the data from his two groups, his campaign has produced 16,000 variations of digital ads, aides told me, including those that are adjusted automatically by software to more effectively target viewers by their interests. The aides acknowledged that they built the early phase of the campaign specifically to fit the DNC’s requirements, postponing other voter-engagement efforts until the fall. “We are creating and pushing out new [ad] campaigns every day, and adjusting for efficiency as we learn about the best ways to reach people who respond to Tom’s message,” said Martha Patzer, one of Steyer’s deputy campaign managers, who previously worked at Need to Impeach (she’s one of the many staffers at Steyer’s groups who transitioned to his presidential team).

An aide on a rival 2020 campaign took a different view: Digging at how much money Steyer has spent on targeted advertising on Facebook, the aide said, “This amounts to a wealth transfer between Tom Steyer and Mark Zuckerberg.” (The staffer, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank.)

Aides on other campaigns tell me they see parallels between Steyer’s bid and that of Andrew Yang. The entrepreneur has tapped into huge interest in his campaign online, but critics insist his popularity is not an actual indicator of voter interest. Yang has already qualified for the September debate. At the Iowa State Fair here over the weekend, I heard him tell a reporter, “Obviously I’m a little biased because I made the debate, but I think the [DNC] rules are great.”

Presidential-campaign staffers shared similar grievances ahead of the first debates, which had similar, if less ambitious, qualifying criteria. As my colleague Russell Berman reported in June, there was “a mad rush for donors, as candidates have purchased pricey digital ads simply to get contributions of even a single dollar—a tactic that they have complained is a poor use of money and one that will continue once the threshold rises to 130,000 donors for the fall debates.”

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.

In an interview at the fairgrounds over the weekend, DNC Chair Tom Perez told me he believes the system is working as it should. “We have been doing exactly what happens in every Democratic primary process,” Perez said. “The closer you get to the first elections, we raise the bar gradually, fairly, and transparently.”

The first campaign aide wasn’t impressed when I shared Perez’s response. “If this is truly about the grassroots,” the staffer said, “you wouldn’t set up a system where you can buy grassroots.”