What this means is that candidates who are good at the process have a better shot at being elected simply because the process is, however lamentably, an important part of a political campaign. And in the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nominating contest, no candidate has been more adept at negotiating the party’s process than businessman Tom Steyer.
On Thursday evening, political observers were quite surprised (to put it mildly) to learn that Steyer had suddenly moved into second place in South Carolina, according to Fox News polling, earning the support of 15 percent of poll respondents. In Nevada, a similar surge, with Steyer moving into a tie for third place. The immediate result? Steyer earned a spot in next week’s Democratic primary debate. It will be his fourth appearance and another example of how he has managed to keep hitting the party’s tightening requirements for participating in the debates even as better-known candidates have been pushed offstage.
How’d he do it? He did it by spending money.
Steyer, a billionaire, has spent more than $116 million on television ads so far, second only to former New York mayor (and fellow billionaire) Mike Bloomberg. Steyer’s total is about 10 times the third-biggest spender, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has spent a bit under $12 million.
Ad spending data compiled by Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group and shared by FiveThirtyEight show roughly how spending has been broken out in the first four states to hold primary contests. Steyer is consistently the biggest spender in those states (and, to target New Hampshire voters, in Massachusetts).
So why’s he in second in South Carolina, where he has laid out $8.3 million, but tied for seventh (according to RealClearPolitics’s average of polls) in Iowa, where he has spent more?
Simple: Dominance. Steyer’s layout makes up 9 out of every 10 dollars spent in South Carolina, according to the Kantar data shared by FiveThirtyEight, and nearly all spending in Nevada.
Obviously this isn’t the only factor, or he would be leading handily in Nevada where data show him accounting for almost all of the television ad spending. But it is certainly a factor. And why’s he doing this? Because the Democratic Party’s rules stipulate that to appear in debates, candidates must hit baselines of support in early states as measured by polling.
While Bloomberg is outspending Steyer overall, Steyer’s outspending Bloomberg in the four states listed above, because the two candidates have different strategies. Bloomberg is eschewing debate appearances, in part because he is also rejecting contributions — one of the factors the party takes into consideration — and also, in part, because he appears to think it helps set him apart in the field. Steyer, who lacks the background in politics of Bloomberg, has been campaigning at times as though making the debate stage is his primary focus, perhaps operating under the belief that it’s a necessary part of his building the sort of national profile that can help power long-term success in the contest.
If that’s the thinking, it’s not paying many dividends yet. Steyer has appeared in three debates and still polls at about 2 percent nationally. A week before the most recent debate, he was at 1.6 percent in RealClearPolitics’s national average. A week after the debate? He was at 1.5 percent.
Steyer, like Bloomberg, has the ability to stick around simply because he can afford it. Many candidates need to rise in the polls so that they can generate more funds, which can then help them expand their presence and rise further in the polls. Steyer doesn’t need those funds, so he doesn’t have to rise in the polls immediately. (Bloomberg isn’t even contesting the first few states, instead unloading his fortune with an eye on Super Tuesday in early March.) Sure, Steyer needs to improve his position at some point if he wants the nomination, but he doesn’t need to surge simply to stay in contention.
What’s important to note is that, by taking fundraising out of the picture, Steyer and Bloomberg can run campaigns tailored to specific outcomes, sidestepping the process into which more mainstream candidates are locked. Steyer can, in essence, choose to run a campaign focused on making the debate stage. Bloomberg can choose to skip a few states and see what happens. Either can continue to pump millions of dollars into their candidacies well into 2020 if they choose to do so, making the party’s process seem almost quaint. The party wants to narrow the field, but if members of the field can afford to stick around, there’s not really anything the party can do to prevent it.
In 2016, billionaire Donald Trump successfully leveraged the Republican Party’s primary system to earn the nomination. He did so not by stepping outside of the GOP’s process but, instead, by using it as something of a glide path that wouldn’t be available to an independent. Steyer and Bloomberg are doing something different, and they probably facing a rockier path as a result.
But we go back to the original point. Political campaigns often end up measuring something other than suitability to hold the position that’s being contested. They often instead measure likability or pocket-depth or survivability. In the unlikely event that the 2020 Democratic nomination comes down to the candidate who can best weather the party’s own rules for earning that nomination — and not, say, who voters think would be the best president — Steyer is a shoo-in.