In the month since Tom Steyer jumped into the Democratic presidential field with a promise to spend $100 million on his own campaign, the billionaire activist and former hedge fund manager has made his name known across early primary states with millions in ad buys.
But it remains to be seen whether Steyer, a major Democratic donor who made headlines in recent years for his calls to impeach President Donald Trump, can convert name recognition into a spot on the Democratic debate stage in September and a viable campaign in the long run.
The Steyer campaign has spent more than $7 million on TV and digital ads during its first month, according to data provided by social media companies and an analysis of Federal Communications Commission filings available in the OpenSecrets political ad database.
OpenSecrets identified more than $3.7 million in TV ad buys on more than 12,000 spots across the first four primary states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Steyer began running ads on July 10, the day after his campaign launched.
The TV spots touch on Steyer’s business acumen, philanthropic work and activism on climate change, as well as his efforts to oust Trump.
“Donald Trump failed as a businessman,” Steyer says in one ad, citing a New York Times investigation into the president’s business losses during the late 1980s. “I started a tiny investment business and over 27 years grew it successfully to $36 billion.”
The ad blitz appears to have worked on some voters. Steyer, who is visiting Iowa for the first time on Friday, has already hit at least 2 percent in three qualifying polls, just one short of the polling requirement for the September debates. That puts him ahead of several more conventional candidates, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Govs. Jay Inslee, Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper.
Of the three polls in which Tom Steyer has achieved at least 2 percent, two were conducted in Iowa while one was conducted in South Carolina. He has yet to hit 2 percent in any national polls.
Still elusive for Steyer is the requirement of 130,000 unique donors, the Democratic National Committee’s marker of grassroots support. Campaigns have until Aug. 28 to reach the threshold. The Steyer campaign has not said how many donors it has so far.
To attract new donors, Steyer’s digital ads target voters across the country and ask for contributions of just $1. During its first month, the campaign spent about $3.5 million on digital ads: $2.6 million on Facebook, nearly $700,000 on Google and more than $200,000 on Twitter. These totals are unprecedented, even as presidential candidates across the board have increased digital spending in order to attract small-dollar donors.
Steyer’s digital campaign presence builds off his activism through political groups he previously funded out of his own pocket, such as NextGen Climate Action and Need to Impeach, a super PAC targeting his now-opponent Donald Trump.
Prior to Steyer’s official announcement of his candidacy in July, Need to Impeach spent more than $4.4 million on ads promoting the “Tom Steyer” Facebook page, which is now used by his campaign. After Steyer threw his hat in the ring, ads on the page switched from being paid for by Need to Impeach or his personal funds to being paid for by his 2020 campaign.
Steyer’s 458,000 likes on Facebook already put him ahead of many better-known candidates including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. And big spending on digital ads allows the billionaire activist to continue to grow his audience. His campaign’s digital ad spending totals during its first month are more than double those of any other Democrat during the same period.
When comparing total spending on digital advertising, Steyer trails only the three candidates who are leading most polls: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Warren and Sanders officially launched their campaigns in February, while Biden declared in April.
Steyer’s spending on TV advertising, meanwhile, far outpaces other Democratic candidates, who have generally focused on building their ground games in early primary states rather than running TV ads.
Among the top five candidates in terms of polling, only Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has run TV ads so far. Her campaign’s first ad, a 1-minute spot titled “3 a.m. agenda,” hit the airwaves in Iowa this week.
Gillibrand, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) have also devoted resources to TV ads. Gabbard has passed the donor threshold to qualify for September but still needs three more polls. Delaney and Gillibrand have yet to reach either benchmark.
While some candidates might be forced to drop out if they do not qualify for the September debate stage, Tom Steyer has plenty of resources to continue running ads and pick up new donors. The DNC will host another debate in October.