$12 Million Couldn’t Buy Tom Steyer a Spot in the Democratic Debate

He’s spent big bucks asking for small donations.

Billionaire Tom Steyer asks for $1 donations to help him qualify for the Democratic presidential debates.Tom Steyer 2020/Facebook

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Tom Steyer has blanketed the airwaves for years, fronting ads for his political groups NextGen Climate and Need to Impeach. When he launched his presidential campaign in July, pundits were skeptical that the investor-turned-progressive-activist could attract enough support to break through in a field of more than 20 Democratic candidates. His most immediate task: Qualify for the upcoming debates by registering support from at least 2 percent of respondents in four separate polls and by accumulating 130,000 individual donors. So the California billionaire—who has appeared in Super Bowl ads—began shelling out millions of dollars to drum up attention and financial support.

It hasn’t quite worked out—at least not yet.

First, the good news for Steyer: His campaign says that it was indeed able to convince 130,000 supporters to give money to the wealthy candidate—an effort that may have cost Steyer more money than it raised. According to Politico, his team spent nearly $1 million in a single week on Facebook ads, many of which asked for donations of a $1.

But when the final polls establishing who would participate in the September debate were released Wednesday, it became clear that Steyer had missed the cut. He reached the 2-percent threshold in just three polls approved by the Democratic National Committee, one short of the requirement. And all of those were polls of Iowa or South Carolina; Steyer failed to score above 1 percent in any of the qualifying national polls. It’s a particularly dismal showing given that Steyer, according to an industry group, has spent as much as $12 million on television and digital ads since his campaign launched a month-and-a-half ago. For context, that’s almost twice as much as the total amount that New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who did qualify for the debate, spent in the first five months of his campaign. At least $2 million of Steyer’s advertising budget was spent on the Boston television market, trying to woo New Hampshire voters. Steyer’s campaign has spent more than $4 million on Facebook ads, according to the company’s database. Google’s database reports $1.5 million in Steyer ads.

While Steyer will be missing out on the September debate, he can still qualify for the October debate if he hits 2 percent in another poll. That’s what his latest Facebook ads focus on. “Zero DNC debate-qualifying polls in New Hampshire in over a month,” complains one such ad. “Add your name to tell the DNC to expand its polling criteria.”

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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