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Why We’re Not Treating Tom Steyer As A ‘Major’ Candidate (Yet)

On Tuesday morning, liberal donor Tom Steyer announced in a video that he was running for president. As those of you who have been closely monitoring the 2020 Democratic primary know, it was actually his second presidential campaign announcement — the first came in January, when he said he was not running.

And Steyer’s indecision may have cost him. With more than 20 candidates already in the Democratic race (and one already having ended his campaign after being crowded out!), there doesn’t seem to be much room for more, and the campaign season is already well underway — Steyer even missed the first debate. It’s also very unlikely that he’ll make the stage for the July debate, given that he hasn’t been included in a single poll since early January. Steyer needs at least 1 percent in three qualifying polls between now and July 16, the deadline for polls to be released and still count toward the Democratic National Committee’s rules for inclusion. But that will be difficult for him, since he received 0 percent in the only two surveys from DNC-sanctioned pollsters in which he has so far been tested: a national poll from CNN/SSRS and a Selzer & Co. poll of Iowa, both conducted in December.

There is always a chance that Steyer, who is personally wealthy, may be able to increase his name recognition by saturating the airwaves. (He has already personally appeared in some ads for his campaign to push Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against President Trump, which could help; impeachment is generally popular among Democrats, although it’s not a big priority for them.) But for now, we are holding off on treating Steyer as a major candidate. He meets only two of our 10 criteria for major-candidate status (he is officially running, and he is running to win) for sure, although a third (hiring at least three full-time staffers) appears in reach, given that he could easily poach staff from his existing political organizations like Need to Impeach and NextGen America. But the fact that he waited so long to jump into the race and has never held public office hurts him; it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to reach the six criteria he needs to be considered “major” in our book.

Speaking of presidential candidates we’re keeping an eye on, we also don’t consider former Rep. Joe Sestak a major candidate — yet. Sestak announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination on June 23, but the move came as a surprise. Sestak had not been widely mentioned as a potential candidate, and he has not won an election in almost a decade. A former three-star Navy admiral, he was a star of the 2006 cycle for Democrats, when he flipped a traditionally Republican House seat in Pennsylvania. But he ran unsuccessfully for Senate in both 2010 and 2016, primarying the party establishment’s preferred candidate both times. (He won the primary in 2010 but lost the general election.)

In part because of his political experience, Sestak is closer than Steyer is to major-candidate status: He meets five of the 10 criteria, including that he has been actively campaigning (almost nonstop in Iowa since his announcement).1 That means he would need just one more for us to consider him a major candidate — for example, if at least half of pollsters start including him in polls. Some are already beginning to do so, although he has gotten 0 percent in every single poll he’s been tested in, but make no mistake — even if he qualifies as a FiveThirtyEight major candidate, he would still be an extreme long shot.

In both cases, why Steyer and Sestak have decided to run is not immediately clear — the field is crowded, they have low name recognition, and they probably waited too long to run in the first place. But if Sestak or Steyer eventually do qualify as major candidates, we’ll give them the same pros-and-cons-of-their-candidacy treatment that we’ve given the others, no matter how much of a long shot their candidacies may be.

From ABC News:

Tom Steyer enters 2020 presidential contest


  1. The other four are that (1) he is officially running, (2) he is running to win, (3) he has held public office before and (4) the public office he held was significant.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.