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How Tom Steyer Could Win The 2020 Democratic Primary

Congratulations, Tom Steyer! Since announcing a run for president on July 9, the prodigal progressive donor has qualified as a “major” Democratic candidate by FiveThirtyEight’s definition by reaching 1 percent or more in three qualifying polls.1 That means it’s time to write about his possible path to the nomination.

To be clear, it remains a narrow one. Although Steyer has gotten 1 percent or 2 percent in plenty of polls, he has yet to surpass that. Much of that has to do with his low name recognition: In three recent national polls2 that asked about Steyer, an average of 64 percent of Democrats said they didn’t know who he was or had no opinion of him.

Low name recognition isn’t necessarily a serious liability, however. In fact, it can be an opportunity, if you have access to a lot of money — which Steyer certainly does. With a net worth of $1.6 billion, Steyer can easily afford to spend millions of his own dollars on campaign ads. The former hedge fund manager is already responsible for the largest TV ad buy of the Democratic primary thus far: a reported $1.4 million for two weeks of ads on national cable news and local programs in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Steyer has also outspent every other candidate in Facebook and Google ad buys since entering the race. And there could be much more to come: Steyer and his wife were the largest contributors to the 2014 and 2016 federal elections (ahead of the likes of Sheldon Adelson and George Soros!) and the third-most prolific donors in the 2018 cycle, giving a cool $74 million. And Steyer has claimed that he will spend at least $100 million on the presidential race.

Unfortunately for Steyer, all that money may not make a difference. (Just ask Presidents Ross Perot and Steve Forbes … oh wait.) Our research into 2018 Democratic primary races found that self-funders (specifically, candidates who loaned or donated $400,000 or more to their campaigns) didn’t have an advantage. If anything, self-funders historically have had poor electoral track records, especially in open-seat races. As FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver wrote in 2010, they often suffer from inexperience when interacting with voters, a lack of adequate vetting and the diminishing returns of ad spending.

Steyer’s background in finance probably hurts him as well, as Democrats do not seem favorably disposed to nominating a businessman of their own. Steyer, Andrew Yang and now-declined candidate Michael Bloomberg have all tended to have lower favorability ratings than would be expected based on how well-known they are. And people without experience running for office are also generally less successful.

But Steyer does have one ace in the hole: his close association with the effort to impeach Trump. Until switching gears to run for president, he was the founder and primary funder of Need to Impeach, a group that advocates for Congress to begin impeachment proceedings. Impeachment is quite popular among Democrats, too. Sixty-one percent of Democrats said they supported beginning impeachment proceedings in a recent Quinnipiac poll, and the most recent Fox News poll found that 74 percent of Democrats wanted to see Trump impeached and removed from office. In addition, Sen. Elizabeth Warren experienced a small bump in the polls in late April — which happened to occur right after she became the first candidate to come out forcefully for impeachment, although it’s impossible to know if one caused the other.

On the other hand, both polling and anecdotal evidence suggest that impeachment isn’t that important to Democratic primary voters. For instance, in a HuffPost/YouGov survey from June, only 18 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners listed it among the three issues most important to them; the topic has also rarely come up at town halls with the presidential candidates.

Steyer’s best-case scenario probably relies on his ability to use his massive financial resources and to seize on a popular issue to introduce himself favorably to the Democratic electorate. Indeed, in less than a month, he has notched half of the polls he needs to qualify for the September debate (although his ability to amass 130,000 individual donors remains a big question mark). He has already begun to leverage the robust campaign operations of Need to Impeach, which has more than 8.2 million people on its email list, and NextGen America, an advocacy group he founded in 2013, to help his campaign. But Steyer is also starting from way behind, and it’s going to take every ounce of political muscle he’s got to crack into the top tier in such a crowded field.


  1. Even though the first two debates have come and gone and the DNC’s criteria are now stricter, attaining the original criteria is still one of the paths that candidates can take for FiveThirtyEight to consider them “major.”

  2. By YouGov, Morning Consult and Harris X.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.