I am pointedly trying not to make predictions about the presidential race. But I think I can say with confidence that Tom Steyer — a hedge fund billionaire who announced this week that he, too, was running for president — will not be the Democratic nominee.
It took years of political cultivation and an astute strategy for our sitting president to win a major party nomination as a wealthy outsider.
Beginning in 2011, Donald Trump forged an emotional connection with Republican voters, channeling their partisan rage into a racist smear campaign against President Barack Obama. Trump was a mainstay on Fox News and used his popular Twitter account to attack the Obama administration and the president personally. He had a real following with rank-and-file Republicans — enough so that he was at or near the top of the field in early polling for the 2012 Republican primaries. He didn’t run, but he was influential enough to make his a coveted endorsement, which he gave to Mitt Romney in a televised event ahead of the Nevada primary.
“It’s my honor, real honor, to endorse Mitt Romney,” Trump said. “He’s smart, he’s sharp, he’s not going to let bad things continue to happen to this country we all love.” Romney was similarly effusive: “There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life. This is one of them. Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight.”
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When Trump finally ran for president in 2015, he rejected the Republican establishment and its priorities, running to the left on social spending and sharply to the right on immigration and racial inclusion. This put him closer to the views of ordinary Republican voters and quickly gave him a decisive lead in the race, which he would never relinquish. His campaign changed the shapes of both parties, drawing blue-collar whites to the Republicans and pushing college-educated whites toward the Democrats.
Steyer has none of this. His advocacy campaigns on impeachment and the environment have not been enough to build a connection with ordinary Democratic voters. He is a prominent donor, but not a major force among the Democratic grass roots. And while there is tension between the Democratic base and the legislative leadership, there’s no issue that Steyer could exploit the way Trump did with immigration.
Trump had something else that Steyer lacks: a direct appeal to identity. He ran as the champion of America’s petite bourgeoisie — its police officers, small-business owners and white blue-collar workers. There’s no equivalent appeal on the left for Steyer to embrace, no hyper-aggrieved group of Democratic voters, no demographic, that doesn’t already have a credible representative in the race.
Steyer has no constituency other than himself. He just has money. And he intends to spend it. He has already pledged to spend $100 million on his campaign, more than the combined second-quarter fund-raising of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. If he has a strategy, it’s to buy his way onto the debate stage and then into a top spot in the polls.
For someone who claims to care about the fate of the country, it’s a waste. If Steyer actually wants to influence politics — and specifically to beat President Trump — there are many more worthwhile things he could do with his money. With $100 million, Ben Mathis-Lilley at Slate magazine estimates Steyer could pay fines and restore voting rights for up to 70,000 Floridians, which would have a real impact on the 2020 race. As it happens, I also have a few ideas for how Steyer could spend his cash in more constructive ways.
Among all adults, a recent survey done for The Washington Post shows, Trump loses in head-to-head matchups with most of his competitors. But among registered voters, he’s either virtually tied or ahead of everyone other than the former vice president Joe Biden. The difference is easy to explain. Compared with all adults, and especially nonvoters, registered voters are whiter, wealthier and more likely to have steady employment and a permanent address. They are, in other words, more Republican than the public at large.
If Democrats could close the gap between the two groups — if they could bring more nonvoters or new voters into the process — they would have a better shot at beating Trump in 2020. It’s true that Steyer already has an organization, Next Generation, partially devoted to expanding the electorate. Still, instead of running a quixotic campaign for the Democratic nomination, he could invest his spare cash in a new national voter registration effort, aimed perhaps at the millions of Americans who will turn 18 between now and November of next year, as well as the millions of young voters who didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election, even if they were eligible. (Research suggests that there’s more bang for your organizing buck in targeting new adults for voter registration.)
This would do more to help Democrats next year than a Tom Steyer presidential campaign. What’s more, it could be coupled with an effort to bolster the work that helped Democrats win big in 2017 and 2018, including a landslide victory in the Virginia statewide elections and a surprise conquest in Alabama. Groups like New Virginia Majority and Black Voters Matter worked with local activists to register voters and build powerful turnout operations. A concerted effort to mobilize voters of color might, by itself, be enough to send Trump back to Fifth Avenue. It is not too late for Steyer to think about doing that instead of mounting a campaign.
Of course, that may not be glamorous enough for someone who wants to be president. In which case, Steyer could instead spend his millions on ballot initiatives to expand democracy and access. Activists in Michigan and Florida have already used this process to push back against gerrymandering and reverse felon disenfranchisement.
Steyer himself embraced the approach in California with Next Generation, where he spent millions to pass a cigarette tax and to block an effort to repeal the law that allowed cap-and-trade in the state. Why not go further and back reform in other states that allow initiative and referendum? Take action to level the playing field and reshape the structure of American politics. It may not have the thrill — of the visibility — of a presidential run, but it would be infinitely more useful to liberal politics.
If nothing else, Steyer could use his wealth to assist down-ballot candidates, from the House and Senate to state legislative districts. Their success will be more consequential for future progressive gains than any possible presidential campaign. With a Senate majority, Democrats would actually have a chance at meaningful action on the climate, one of Steyer’s principal concerns, while state house and governorship wins are the direct path to breaking extreme partisan gerrymandering. Steyer also doesn’t have to wait until 2020 to make an impact — the Virginia General Assembly is up for grabs in this year’s state legislative elections. If Democrats win, they’ll have a trifecta for the first time in a generation, a rare chance to put progressive policy into action.
The Democratic Party doesn’t need another presidential candidate. It’s a waste of resources, another example of liberal America’s disastrous preoccupation with executive office at the expense of the rest of our federal system, which spreads power across different institutions, offices and levels of government.
If there is going to be a progressive renewal in American politics, it won’t start in the White House. It will start from the bottom up, built from movements centered on identity, injustice and material deprivation — ordinary people organizing themselves to fight for a better, more humane society.
Progressives need the Tom Steyers of the world to back those efforts, not to playact as a populist with a vanity campaign.
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Jamelle Bouie became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2019. Before that he was the chief political correspondent for Slate magazine. He is based in Charlottesville, Va., and Washington. @jbouie
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