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WASHINGTON — Billionaire Tom Steyer had an important question for Democrats as he jumped into the 2020 race on Tuesday: "Can you please donate $1?"
That’s what the billionaire asks in his Facebook and Google ads — a seemingly absurd request for a man who’s ready to drop $100 million of his own money on the campaign.
But new rules governing who can qualify for Democratic debates have forced Steyer to plead for $1 donations so he can reach the 130,000 donor threshold it’ll take to get onstage in September.
That message is Steyer’s leading argument on both Google and Facebook, where he’s joined other Democratic candidates holding out a virtual tip jar as an opening pitch.
His Facebook page began peppering users with ads yesterday asking for a small donation to help him make the debate stage. That initial volley overwhelmingly targeted middle-aged and elderly women, according to Facebook's Ad Library.
Steyer spokesman Alberto Lammers told VICE News that Steyer was unlikely to make the late July debate — the cutoff to qualify is just over a week away. They’re pushing hard to make the debate stage in September, when the threshold for qualifying jumps.
While candidates only needed either 65,000 donors or 1% in three credible national or early-state polls for the first two debates, Steyer and the rest will need to reach 2% in four different polls and raise money from 130,000 donors if they want to make the stage in Houston in mid-September.
Hitting both bars will be expensive. And while hitting the donor threshold means pouring money into Facebook and Google, building the name recognition to poll at 2% means buying old fashioned TV ads by the bushel.
Steyer, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, has already reserved $1.4 million worth of TV ads that will appear nationally on CNN and MSNBC along with local markets in early-voting states Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. He’s the first candidate who’s spending anything significant on traditional advertising.
“The ad agency that’s doing his buying — I’m sure — is very excited right now,” said Ben Taber, a research analyst for Advertising Analytics, a firm that tracks political media spending. “None of the major players have started buying TV ads in a big way.”
In the past, money alone would have been enough to get almost any candidate onstage for the debates. It’s hard to ignore someone ready to spend that type of dough on staff and ads. But the Democratic National Committee’s new rules for qualifying for debates have fundamentally changed that dynamic and forced even uber-wealthy candidates to build out fundraising lists.
Stu Loeser, a top adviser to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said that his team was definitely cognizant of the new rules as they geared up for a possible presidential run earlier this year.
“It is absolutely something we considered and something which we had a plan to move forward,” he said.
Loeser pointed out President Trump had been able to pretend to self-fund his 2016 campaign while raising $20 one MAGA hat at a time. He said that wouldn’t fly with Democrats — but that Steyer wasn’t in an impossible situation.
“Raising money for yourself is complicated,” he said. “You have to say ‘this is a small contribution for a broader cause.’ I’m not asking you to give ‘til it hurts, I’m asking you to move me forward.’”
Steyer is doing just that, with a pitch explicitly aimed at getting small donations to help him get onstage.
While amassing such tiny donations typically runs campaigns a few bucks, Democratic strategists tell VICE News that the rush to meet the DNC's debate benchmarks has pushed up prices on Facebook in particular. They estimate that the cost of enticing such $1 donors — by getting them to click on ads, respond to emails, or answer text messages — has momentarily skyrocketed to between $20 and $40. Lesser-known candidates like Steyer tend to pay on the higher end for each response.
Steyer has done himself some favors on this front. His Need To Impeach organization spent heavily the last few years to build up their email list. The organization spent $4.4 million in Facebook ads alone since May 2018, dwarfing that of every other Democratic hopeful besides Beto O'Rourke, who poured money into the platform during his hotly contested race for a Texas Senate seat last year.
That pile of money bought Steyer's group nearly 12,000 Facebook ads, providing feedback on which flavor of pro-impeachment messaging resonated and helping it build its massive email list. The result: 8.2 million people who’ve signed up.
Steyer’s other group NextGen is smaller, but has done even more market research — those signing up are asked what their top political issues are, a useful metric to gather to target them on the topics they care the most about.
Steyer’s campaign is renting Need to Impeach’s email list at “fair market value,” according to Lammers, giving them access to a trove of useful data and contacts for supporters
It’s not so clear that will translate over — just because you want to impeach Trump doesn’t mean you want to see Steyer as the Democratic nominee. But it’s certainly a start.
“Getting an email for a candidate for president just because you signed up for impeachment, I can’t imagine the open rate will be that high,” said Loeser.
Cover: Tom Steyer, co-founder of NextGen Climate Action Committee, speaks during a town hall event in Ankeny, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)