It is probably inevitable that California billionaire Tom Steyer will announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, if only through the force of sheer political momentum. Steyer’s been pushing toward this goal for four years, spending heavily in 2014 to back candidates who supported the environment, in 2016 to turn out young voters, and since Trump’s inauguration to sort of abstractly call for the president’s impeachment. On Tuesday, two weeks after the midterms, Steyer announced town halls in early 2020 primary states and a five-point policy agenda. The inevitable is approaching at a rapid clip.
Unfortunately for the financier Steyer, though, his rendezvous with his self-determined destiny might come at the worst possible time. If you tried to imagine a candidate who best resonates with the Democratic Party in this moment, three qualities that wouldn’t be at the top of the mind are — in increasing order of unlikelihood — white, male and rich.
Now, look. My track record of evaluating the likelihood of success for presidential candidates isn’t particularly great. I assumed, as did others, that the Republican Party’s internal mechanics would ensure that the party’s 2016 candidate would be a Jeb Bush-type person, not a Donald Trump-type one. The party had fairly successfully fended off its emotional base in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and I assumed it would do so again in 2016. It did not, for a variety of reasons, including a fractured field that allowed Trump to consolidate support from a fervent group of supporters that propelled him to the nomination.
But that’s also why a Steyeresque candidate seems so unlikely for the Democrats in 2020.
Steyer isn’t the only Steyeresque candidate humming around in the background. There’s also former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (who did some heavy midterm spending of his own) and former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz. Each comes from a similar background: used to running things and spending to effect change and, one might assume, rarely facing insurmountable opposition.
It also seems, to some extent, as though they see the Democratic Party as the sole refuge for business-friendly centrism. To be fair, the party has always had a welcoming nook for such candidates, but with the increasing consolidation of the Republican Party by Trump and Trump loyalists, even more conservative candidates like Bloomberg appear to see the Democratic Party, to a large extent, as the Not-Republican Party. Bloomberg, whose party identification has long been flexible, was toying with a run as an independent in 2016. That the GOP was tugged further from the middle during that campaign and after seems to signal to Bloomberg and other Trump opponents of varying stripes that they necessarily have a welcoming home on the left.
That misreads the simultaneous change in the Democratic Party.
In 2016, the party establishment almost saw its second open-nomination loss in a row as Hillary Clinton fended off a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Sanders recognized that running for president as an independent meant having to create his own runway toward liftoff. Running as a Democrat, the party with which he’d long caucused, gave him prominence and infrastructure that he’d otherwise lack. Trump, intentionally or not, benefited from the same parasitism on the Republican side, and people like Bloomberg and Steyer no doubt recognize that the chance of becoming president increases significantly by routing through a party than by attacking from the outside.
But Sanders’s bid was almost successful because he captured two sentiments for which Bloomberg and Steyer are not natural fits. The first was a rejection of the establishment and the second a focus on issues of economic inequality. Sanders leveraged the establishment to run against it, making a pitch that was focused on the antithesis of Bloomberg, Steyer and Schultz: Too much wealth concentrated at the top was unfair and, in some ways, dangerous.
We have noted repeatedly that Sanders benefited from an underrecognized shift in the ideology of Democratic voters. While Republicans have been overwhelmingly conservative for years, a plurality of Democrats identified as moderate as recently as 2000, with only slightly more Democrats identifying as liberal as conservative. By 2017, half of Democrats identified as liberal.
A wealthy, socially liberal business executive would have certainly felt at home in the party at the end of the Clinton administration. At this point, that’s less the case, as 2016 should have demonstrated. Sanders ran against Clinton specifically by saying that she was too close to Wall Street. Is the party, four years later, going to nominate a chief executive, a hedge-funder or a Bloomberg?
But it’s not just the wealth that’s problematic. It’s also the demographics.
Pew Research Center data show that women have increasingly identified as Democrats since 2015, in part, as a response to Trump’s candidacy.
The party is also much more diverse than it used to be. While 83 percent of Republicans are white, according to Pew, only 59 percent of Democrats are.
The effects of that shift are tangible in the midterm election results. Including the leaders in still-uncalled House races as of Monday evening, the incoming Democratic caucus will be far more diverse than the Republican caucus. A plurality will be white men, but a majority of the House caucus will be made up of nonwhite representatives and women.
But those numbers include incumbents. Will Jordan of GlobalStrategyGroup looked at House seats that flipped from Republicans to Democrats in 2018 as opposed to 2006. Twelve years ago, more than 8 in 10 Democrats who won Republican-held seats were white men. This year, less than a quarter were (as of a few days ago).
What’s critical to remember, though, is what I missed in 2016: This midterm election saw a surge in turnout from an energized Democratic Party, both in the general and in the primaries. That surge in the primaries is why there were more diverse candidates in the general. The Democratic base turned out and voted for candidates who mostly weren’t white men. The energy in the party is distinctly away from moderates who look like Steyer and Bloomberg.
In what will likely be a crowded Democratic field, lots of things can happen. Spending a lot of money in politics has uncertain effects, and the lesson of the past two years is to be wary in making pronouncements that are too certain.
But if you want to make a bet on whether a billionaire white man will be the nominee, I’d be happy to discuss the odds I’ll give you.