The Best Campaign Money Can Buy

Tom Steyer, the outsider billionaire candidate, will make his debate-stage debut tonight.

Tom Steyer arrives at the Charleston Blue Jamboree. He's flanked by supporters holding "Tom 2020" signs.
Tom Steyer arrives at the Charleston Blue Jamboree in early October. (Meg Kinnard / AP)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—Was it dancing? Marching?

Tom Steyer pointed his hands and pumped his knees on the way into the park for the Blue Jamboree, with a big band behind him. He hired it from a nearby college. Sixteen trombones, 10 tubas, 10 bass drums, 12 snares, a mass of saxophones and horns and cymbals. Four young women danced at the front; 11 more ran through flag routines at the back.

There was no ignoring them, and so there was no ignoring him.

“One! Two! One, two, three, four!” called out Harold Mitchell, the former South Carolina state representative who was Steyer’s first endorsement in the state, with a little boogie in his step as he reminded people of the issue that Steyer, arguably more than anyone else in America, has made mainstream: “Im-peach-ment! Here we go!”

These were people who chose to spend a Saturday afternoon sitting through hours of stump speeches, but they were with Steyer as he ticked through his examples of what he calls a “broken government” so entangled in corporate corruption that it needs a corporate expert to undo. He touched on his term-limits proposal, which, he pointed out, would mean the end of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina’s own Senator Lindsey Graham. He described the climate emergency that he says he’d declare on day one in the Oval Office. The crowd clapped and cheered through each point.

Trav Robertson, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, watched from a distance, sipping a cup of sweet tea, fresh off a three-hour drive south from a packed party fundraising dinner in Greenville that featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. With the people Steyer is hiring, Robertson told me, it’s “apparent” they’re “preparing a strategy to win the nomination.” A voter, he said, had just brought up to him the community bank that Steyer had started years ago with his wife.

“The fact that he is resonating appears to indicate that the race is wide open,” Robertson said.

Steyer is the billionaire self-funding chaos factor in the primary race, with the potential to shift the center of gravity as others run out of money and he’s still standing come spring. He’s one of the most successful hedge-funders ever, and his team likes to think of him as an undervalued stock in the race.

“We can organize in states on Super Tuesday that no other candidate can,” said Doug Rubin, a longtime Democratic operative serving as a senior adviser to the campaign, pointing to how Steyer’s millions can pay for campaign staff and television ads while other campaigns are going to be running out of cash or making tough decisions about where to compete. “The way the race is now is not the way it’s going to be in January and February,” Rubin said.

Tonight in Ohio, Steyer will be the only candidate onstage who hasn’t appeared in one of the primary debates so far. He’s also one of just eight who have qualified for the next debate in November.

When we met in South Carolina at a bland hotel a few miles from the jamboree, Steyer greeted me with a rant about Republicans taking their time to distance themselves from President Donald Trump, comparing them to co-conspirators in a trial. But that’s not the Steyer that he and his team are trying to present, on the trail or at the debate.

“The advantage of our resources is that we can play the long game,” Rubin said. “Tom doesn’t need a splashy moment to be competitive long-term.”

That’s the tension of Steyer’s campaign: He jokes about how people would think, from media coverage, that his first name is “Billionaire,” but his campaign is possible only because of said billionaire status.

Steyer and his aides think any other campaign or reporter who isn’t taking him seriously is making a big mistake. He has a staff of 200 (and growing), spread among his San Francisco headquarters and offices in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, Colorado, and California. His campaign has a research operation that’s been testing and targeting messages, digging deeper than any other candidate could afford to in the primary. His team announced last week that 166,000 people had given an average of $12 each to his campaign, for a total of almost $2 million, since July. (Yes, they gave this money to a billionaire.) A Morning Consult average of early-state polling last week had him at 8 percent, or fourth place in the race.

For years, Steyer did things his way, starting NextGen America, his young voter-mobilization group, and Need to Impeach, which, with 8 million people signed up, has the largest member list by far in politics outside of the Republican and Democratic national committees. (The NRA, which held that title for years, tops out at about 5 million.) As Steyer tells it, “There was something wrong in the United States that no one was willing to call out inside the Beltway.” When Democratic leaders complained about him, “they tried to shoot the messenger, as opposed to relate to the message, because they knew the message was true, but no one else was willing to say it.” Steyer says that relates directly to his running as a Washington outsider, as the businessman who this time knows what to do about the economy, and as the citizen who had had enough and turned that into his own successful political groups.

“Part of Tom’s strength in the past had been his willingness to challenge the establishment,” a person who’s worked with him told me, asking for anonymity to be direct. “[This campaign] is a very Tom-focused message, rather than a grassroots-focused message.”

Steyer has for years called Trump “a malignant narcissist,” and a crisis for the country and the Constitution. He regularly mentions his father’s work as a lawyer in the Nuremberg trials and, in doing so, all but calls the president a proto-Hitler. “When you see something deeply wrong at the heart of your society, you’re supposed to fight it every day, before it gets stronger, before it takes over,” Steyer said at the Blue Jamboree. “That’s why I started Need to Impeach—because there are no good Nazis.”

But now impeachment, the cause he spent the past two years working toward, is plunging the country into a political and legal crisis. Climate change, the cause that originally got Steyer involved in politics, is “a crisis point for humankind” for which every wasted week counts, he said.

He’s already signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away at least half of his wealth to charity. And he’s said he’ll spend $100 million on a race, more money in a week of TV ads than most of the other candidates scrape by with each quarter.

That $100 million is more than I have in my own bank account, by approximately $100 million. But think of it as a percentage: $100 million to a man worth at least $1.6 billion is the equivalent of $2,925 for someone making the average American annual salary of $46,800. A chunk, but nothing overwhelming, especially for a guy with so much more in the bank and interest coming in every day.

In New Hampshire at the beginning of September, right before he cleared the polling threshold to qualify for tonight’s debate, I asked Steyer whether he’d go past the original budget from his aides that he’d approved at the beginning of the summer. It was a Friday night, and he’d just finished speaking for more than an hour to a few dozen people on a college campus in Durham, New Hampshire. “We guessed what it was going to cost. We know that’s going to change,” he told me then. “So when it changes, we’ll change.”

A month later, in South Carolina, I pushed him again: If he’s really serious about America and the world facing multiple crises, and he’s not campaigning just as a lark, why not go all in? And why not shake it up more and do some things that candidates who have more to worry about aren’t bold enough to do?

“You’re making a point that I consider a good point,” Steyer told me, as if he hadn’t really thought about the question in terms of money. “I’m saying this is the crisis. This is 1859. This is the whole ball of wax. All of it is on the table. That’s how I intend to proceed.”

In September, Steyer flew to Washington, D.C., to appear at the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service/MSNBC climate town hall. Somehow he was the only candidate who decided to pair this appearance with one at the climate strike going on that same afternoon about two miles away. He showed up to the strike with seven aides that I could count, plus the people waiting in his car, plus those who had scouted the scene for him in advance.

He made a short speech into a bullhorn, but only a few people seemed to realize he was even speaking, though one young man shouted, “Stop buying elections, Tom!” back at him as he started to march. But as Steyer made his way through the crowd to drive over to Georgetown, almost a dozen people recognized him, coming up one by one to thank him for what he was doing, shake his hand, take a photo, give him a sticker.

A self-funding billionaire would seem an odd fit for a party with an “eat the rich” appetite these days. That’s the point, Steyer said when I asked him whether he thought Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and others are right when they say billionaires like him shouldn’t exist at all.

“I think that the people who earn a lot of money in our society hang on to way too much of it, because the tax code has been skewed in their favor,” he said. “I think that working people in this society make way too little money and the disparities are too great. But I also don’t believe that we should put a lid on the upside of Americans and say, ‘You can’t do more than we’re willing to allow you to do in Washington, D.C.’”

Some of the support Steyer is enjoying makes cynical sense—some on staff told me he’s paying roughly 150 percent of what other campaigns are offering, plus 100 percent of benefits, student-loan reimbursements, and child care for parents working out of the headquarters on Sundays. But even with that, Steyer hasn’t landed some of the top Democratic operatives who have been left jobless after their candidates dropped out.

“Imagine how much of a hero he would be right now if he dropped out and finally ran some useful impeachment ads at a time when we actually need it to define the fight,” said an aide to an ended presidential campaign who ruled out working for Steyer, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid. (Steyer is still funding Need to Impeach, and two weeks ago kicked in another $2.7 million after the House launched an inquiry, but Trump is still significantly outspending the group and others on Facebook as he mounts his own impeachment defense.)

Of course, Steyer is betting that, even if his two-year impeachment campaign against Trump fails, his presidential campaign against Trump will succeed. Or, he said, he can just switch it up to running against a President Mike Pence, if Trump is removed.

“I think Mr. Trump should be removed because it’s important for America, not because I dislike Mr. Trump personally. I dislike what he’s doing to our country,” Steyer said. “Mr. Pence has been on the wrong side of every argument as long as I can remember. So do I think that all of a sudden he’s going to come to wisdom and truth? No, I do not.”