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Goodbye To Tom Steyer, The Other Billionaire Whose 2020 Campaign Never Made Much Sense

In a field that included heavyweights such as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, perhaps no other Democratic presidential hopeful really had much of a chance in the first place. It sure looks that way right now. But even relative to the other longshots, Tom Steyer, who dropped out of the race on Saturday night after a disappointing finish in the South Carolina primary, was a longshot. Nor was it entirely clear why he was running.

Steyer, a billionaire from his previous career as a hedge fund manager, spent the years before his presidential run pushing two causes in particular: efforts to mitigate climate change and the impeachment of President Trump. But Steyer’s presidential campaign wasn’t particularly focused on either issue — or anything else. He embraced some more liberal ideas (a wealth tax) and opposed others (Medicare for All). He cast himself as a populist while also emphasizing his business experience. He touted his electability and his commitment to fighting climate change, but not in ways that were particularly unique compared to the other candidates.

Steyer’s broader electoral strategy, skipping Iowa and New Hampshire while using his fortune to pump ads into states later in the calendar that the other candidates were not focused on yet, was fairly novel at first. And it halfway worked. According to our polling averages, Steyer eked just into the double digits in Nevada and South Carolina. He finished with 5 percent of county convention delegates in Nevada and 11 percent of the vote in South Carolina. That’s more than a lot of candidates managed.

But it’s not good. And in national polls, Steyer’s support never escaped the low single digits:

None of it was enough. Steyer didn’t manage to win a single delegate to the national convention. And he was largely overshadowed by Michael Bloomberg once he entered the race — another billionaire who took a similar electoral strategy as Steyer but was better-positioned to execute it. Unlike Steyer, Bloomberg had previous experience in elective office, as New York’s mayor. Bloomberg had a bigger network of relationships in the Democratic Party — that resulted in lots of major endorsements — and significantly more wealth (an estimated $60 billion) than Steyer ($1.6 billion), allowing Bloomberg to spend a staggering amount on television commercials. And it’s still not clear that Bloomberg’s comparative advantages will do much for him either.

Steyer eventually settled on a more narrow electoral strategy, investing heavily in South Carolina, that … also did not make much sense. Steyer had no real previous connection to the state or black voters, who accounted for a majority of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. Steyer opted to leave the presidential race after his disappointing finish Saturday night, realizing he had little path to victory.

Some candidates who aren’t likely to be the Democratic nominee — in particular, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang — are likely to emerge from the process having gained something. Some of Warren’s ideas are likely to be included in the platform of the eventual Democratic nominee and perhaps embraced by others in the party. Buttigieg and Yang — both of whom are relatively young — have built networks that will make it easier for them to seek elected office in the future. In contrast, it’s hard to see how this run sets Steyer up for a future U.S. Senate or governor bid, never mind another presidential run.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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