The Key Lesson That Campaigners Can Learn From Tom Steyer

Photo Credit: Tom Steyer 2020
Photo Credit: Tom Steyer 2020

Look, I was bullish on Tom Steyer’s chances in the 2020 Democratic Primaries. I thought, as I imagine many people did, that his extensive financial resources, past successes in the advocacy space (NextGen America and Need to Impact), and deep networks within the political consulting community would put him in a strong position to succeed. I was wrong.

I bought into the lie that billionaires can have an outsized influence on our elections. And that is the biggest lesson that campaigners can learn from Tom Steyer’s failure to launch: don’t believe the hype about money in politics.

Steyer spent extensively on his campaign with little-to-no effect. Per The New York Times:

Mr. Steyer, 62, had failed to capitalize on his investment of millions of dollars in South Carolina, where he had pinned the hopes of his campaign.

Despite spending more than $191 million on advertising nationally, Mr. Steyer did not earn any national pledged delegates in Iowa, New Hampshire or Nevada, making South Carolina something of a make-or-break state for his continued viability.

With nearly 90 percent of the votes counted here, Mr. Steyer had garnered less than 12 percent of the vote, although he told supporters he might pick up one or two delegates.

If Steyer’s campaign served any real purpose, it should be to force campaign professionals to question the value of marginal spending on advertising in campaigns. 

Every campaign has baseline budgetary needs. Field staff, offices, and signs all cost real money. But after a certain point, marginal spending on advertising is just wasteful. 

You cannot buy people’s support, you have to earn it — and Steyer didn’t. It wasn’t that people didn’t know who Steyer was. His name ID was through the roof, but people still chose not to vote for him. That’s not a spending problem, that’s a more fundamental problem.

In the end, Steyer’s campaign seems to have been doomed by the same core problem that plagued Beto O’Rourke: he did not have a compelling argument for why he should be president. Voters care about why you’re running, and Steyer didn’t have a clear answer to “the question.” No amount of ad spending or slick branding can make up for the lack of a strong core narrative.