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Tom Steyer will be on stage for the next debate

Two strong polls in Nevada and South Carolina put him over the top.

Tom Steyer raises a hand during the sixth Democratic debate in Los Angeles
California billionaire Tom Steyer on stage during the sixth Democratic presidential primary debate in Los Angeles in December.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With less than a month to go until the Iowa caucuses, Steyermentum — at least in Nevada and South Carolina — appears to be happening.

California billionaire and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer has qualified for the seventh Democratic primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 14 after hitting the required threshold in two new polls.

Steyer is the sixth Democrat to make the stage, where he’ll join former Vice President Joe Biden; Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar; and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg as the only qualifiers in a 13-candidate Democratic field. Candidates needed at least 225,000 donors, as well as certain levels of support in qualifying polls either nationally or in key early states, to make the cut.

Steyer’s debate qualification came in one fell swoop Thursday night, when Fox News released new polls for the Nevada caucuses, which will take place February 22, and for the South Carolina primary on February 29. Though Biden still leads the field in both states, Steyer came in third in Nevada — tied with Warren — and was catapulted to a narrow second place in South Carolina, just slightly ahead of Sanders.

In Nevada, Steyer claimed 12 percent of caucus-goers, albeit with a 4 percent margin of error. He did even better in South Carolina, earning 15 percent support with a 3.5 percent margin of error, representing an 11-point jump since October 2019. Both polls were conducted earlier this week, from January 5 through January 8.

Steyer entered the presidential race late (compared with the other candidates on stage), in early June 2019, and only after forswearing a 2020 run earlier in 2019. He’s one of two billionaires in the Democratic primary race, along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Steyer’s campaign has thus far been propelled by heavy ad spending in early states funded by his personal wealth (a fortune to the tune of about $1.6 billion, according to Forbes).

That spending was likely the key to Steyer’s surprise last-minute debate qualification ahead of the Democratic National Committee’s deadline of midnight Friday. The DNC requirements, which have increasingly winnowed the proportion of the field on stage in recent months, meant that candidates had to achieve at least 5 percent support in four DNC-eligible national polls or 7 percent in two DNC-eligible early-state polls to get an invitation to Des Moines on Thursday.

According to Politico’s Maya King, as of last month Steyer had spent $83 million on advertising so far. That puts him second place behind Bloomberg, a latecomer to the race who’s already poured $120 million into advertising for his campaign, but it still dwarfs the third-place Buttigieg’s $19 million in ad buys.

The money has allowed Steyer to dominate in advertising in early-voting states. Although some of his ads are airing nationwide, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight, he’s particularly targeted Iowa and South Carolina, two of the first four states to vote. (He’s spending slightly less in Nevada, but he’s still the only candidate to make a TV ad buy specifically in the state.)

Steyer’s apparently been able to leverage some of that visibility into vital polling numbers: Qualifying Nevada and South Carolina polls showed him significantly outperforming his polling average of 3.5 percent in Iowa and 2.2 percent nationally.

That means we’ll see Steyer on the stage in Des Moines next week, while entrepreneur Andrew Yang and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — both of whom reached the donor threshold but missed out on qualifying polls — will be at home.

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