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Tom Steyer drops out of the presidential race

It turns out Democratic voters were not seeking their own billionaire to save them from Trump.

Tom Steyer departs after a campaign stop in Clinton, Iowa, on January 31, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Billionaire activist Tom Steyer dropped out of the Democratic presidential contest Saturday, after failing to gain significant traction in South Carolina and other early states despite spending over $100 million on his campaign.

Steyer had never run for public office before, but he ended up becoming a somewhat notable figure in the Democratic field for one main reason: He has money. With that money, he bought himself tickets to most of the Democratic debates. (He spent millions on online ads to solicit small-donor contributions, and millions more to boost his poll performance in early states.) He also poured money into the early states, and began to see a poll boost in Nevada and South Carolina, where he hoped for a breakout victory.

That didn’t happen. In Nevada, Steyer ended up in sixth place in first-preference votes (with 9 percent). In South Carolina, he didn’t crack the top two, according to projections as of 9:30 pm Saturday night. He decided to withdraw from the race, campaign officials told multiple outlets that night.

In the end, then, the peak of Steyer’s campaign was one humorous viral moment: that time he awkwardly walked into a tense exchange between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren after a debate. Beyond that, all he proved was the limits of the ability of a billionaire’s money to buy votes.

Why did Tom Steyer run?

Steyer became a billionaire after founding the San Francisco-based hedge fund Farallon Capital Management. Then, after stepping back from the firm in 2012, he became an increasingly prominent Democratic donor. His top focus was climate change — he founded the nonprofit group NextGen Climate in 2013, and he gained national prominence by supporting a campaign to get the Obama administration to block the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. But he also poured money into voter registration, campaign ad spending, and (starting in 2017) a push for Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Through all this time, it was an open secret that Steyer mused about one day running for political office himself. He declined to run for senator or governor in California in recent years — and, in January 2019, he said he wouldn’t run for president either.

However, last July, he changed his mind and announced he’d enter the race after all — and he let it be known that he’d spend $100 million of his own money, an enormous sum, on his campaign.

Steyer seems to have been frustrated with the shape of the Democratic race to that point, as Biden continued to hold a shaky-looking lead against a divided field. He seemed to have the idea that, as a non-politician, he could run as an outsider, positioning himself as against the system. So in addition to fighting climate change, his platform emphasized structural political reforms such as term limits for members of Congress and creating a national referendum process.

The Steyer campaign never really took off

The first step was getting onto the debate stage — no easy feat, given the DNC’s efforts to set qualification standards that would exclude much of the enormous field.

Beginning in September (Steyer entered too late to qualify for the two earlier, 20-candidate debates) the challenge was twofold. First, to qualify, a candidate had to pass a polling threshold. Second, that candidate had to show they had grassroots support by raising money from at least 130,000 people.

Steyer basically gamed both requirements with money. To meet the polling requirement, he bombarded the early states with campaign ads, and it paid off — his numbers began to rise, particularly in Nevada and South Carolina, where no other candidates were yet advertising. Then, to meet the fundraising requirement, Steyer spent heavily on online ads meant to solicit contributions — essentially buying small donors.

Steyer ended up falling short for the September debate, but he succeeded in qualifying in October, and for all but one subsequent debate after that.

The problem was that Steyer generally failed to impress on the debate stage. Nothing he said or did there ever resulted in him getting a bounce in national polls or being taken particularly seriously as a top-tier candidate. The most common reaction to Steyer’s presence seemed to be to wonder why he was there.

Another problem arose in November, when suddenly, Steyer was no longer the only billionaire in the race — former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg launched his own campaign.

Steyer had hoped that his enormous financial resources could power him to a national victory — at that point, he had spent more than the entire rest of the Democratic field combined in the early states, and he thought he could pull off a similar strategy nationally. But Bloomberg — who is far richer than Steyer — changed that. He soon began spending more money on ads than the rest of the field, including Steyer, combined.

So the billionaire who surged to the top tier of candidates in national polls this year ended up being Bloomberg. Yet Bloomberg’s decision to skip the four early states meant Steyer at least had the opportunity to break out there.

But he didn’t. Steyer finished in seventh place in the Iowa caucuses, and in sixth place in the New Hampshire primary. In Nevada, where he had higher hopes, he also ended up in sixth place in the first-preference vote, and in fifth in the county convention delegate tally. (He failed to win a single national delegate in any of these contests.)

Still, one hope for Steyer remained: South Carolina, where he was spending exorbitant sums — and had actually risen to third place in the polls.

“His campaign has showered money across the state, especially among the African-American community, hiring black-owned vendors and minority staff members,” the New York Times’ Stephanie Saul and Kim Barker reported. “There have also been allegations, both public and private, that the Steyer campaign crossed ethical lines in its use of money by placing state lawmakers who endorsed him, or their family members, on his payroll.”

Yet in the end, it was Joe Biden who won big in South Carolina — and Steyer fell short. So he announced he was dropping out of the race. One billionaire down, one remains.

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