WASHINGTON — Money can’t buy you love, but it looks like it can buy a spot on the presidential debate stage.
Billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s campaign announced that he’d secured the 130,000 donors necessary to qualify for the September Democratic presidential debates. That’s a remarkable achievement since he’s only been in the race for a month — and one fueled by a massive amount of ad spending.
“Since entering the race five weeks ago, our priority has been getting Tom’s message out to the American people,” Steyer Campaign Manager Heather Hargreaves said in a statement. “Tom reaching this milestone just five weeks into his campaign is proof that his message is resonating with people across the country.”
That donor threshold is one of two requirements that candidates must reach — the other is hitting at least 2% in four qualifying polls in national or statewide polling.
It looks like Steyer’s big spending is going to get him to that requirement as well. He’s been running a heavy rotation of TV ads, dropping an incredible $8.5 million since he declared his candidacy in early July, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Spots are running nationally ($1.8 million) and in the early-voting states of Iowa ($2.2 million), New Hampshire ($1.7 million), South Carolina ($1.6 million) and Nevada ($1 million).
That spending has helped raise his name recognition and has boosted him to 2% in three recent qualifying polls. He needs just one more to get onstage before the cutoff date at the end of August. And all that comes even though he only made his first early-state swing last weekend as he stumped in Iowa.
Steyer has dropped nearly $2.9 million on Facebook ads alone in the last month, according to Facebook’s ad archive. That’s more than the next three candidates combined. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is spending $1 million in a last-minute desperate push to make the same debate, President Trump is spending about $1 million as well, and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) dropped about $650,000 over the same stretch.
The billionaire, who’s pledged to spend $100 million of his own fortune on the longshot campaign, has previously funneled huge sums into political media through his anti-Trump group Need to Impeach. Steyer amassed the warchest over 26 years running the California-based hedge fund Farallon Capital.
That he’ll be onstage while established politicians like Gillibrand are at risk of missing the cut shows how much money still matters in a presidential race — and how much the Democratic National Committee’s debate qualification requirements have shaped the early stages of the presidential race so far.
A number of candidates may be forced out of the race in the coming weeks as they fail to make the debate stage and lose their chance at building more national name recognition. ‘
Only nine candidates have qualified so far out of the two dozen in the race.
Democrats were quick to note the strangeness of the situation.
“The Democratic Party deciding to enrich Facebook with Tom Steyer’s money in the service of… democracy? … is a weird moment,” Democratic pollster John Hagner tweeted shortly after Steyer announced his donations. “If you told someone in early 2017 that the Democratic response to everything Facebook did in in 2016 would be to encourage billionaires to give them millions of dollars in 2019 I don’t think people would believe you.”
Cover: Tom Steyer, a businessman and 2020 presidential candidate, greets an attendee during the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Sunday, Aug. 11, 2019. Since launching his presidential bid, billionaire Steyer has booked more air time than any of his rivals, and even outpaced President Donald Trump's campaign in online ad spending, but has hardly registered in most polls. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)