As campaigns continue to gear up for the first-in-the-nation primary, one Democratic presidential hopeful’s flooding of mailboxes speaks to a broader incentive shift in the race.
Tom Steyer is a California progressive billionaire whose climate change and voting rights advocacy group, NextGen America, had a substantial grassroots presence in the Granite State ahead of the 2018 midterms.
After initially saying he would not run for president, Steyer declared his candidacy in July and has been sending out mailers and airing ads both online and on TV that have caught voters’ attention.
The Steyer campaign did not return a request for comment.
At a Monday evening potluck held by former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign at the Keene Public Library, three voters sat together speculating about what the Steyer mailers were all about.
Frank Dobisky, treasurer of the Cheshire County Democrats; Bill Hay, a local tennis instructor; and Margaret Sawyer, a Keene retiree, all said they had received mailers from the Steyer campaign asking them to donate $1.
While Sawyer said the mailers made her want to learn more about Steyer, Hay said his went into the recycling — just a paper version in a long line of donation requests that he said has forced him to avoid reading email on his phone.
So why would a billionaire want as many $1 donations as possible?
The short answer, from a look at how other campaigns have behaved so far, is the importance of qualifying for the debates.
Steyer, who declared his candidacy quite late when the field had already exceeded 20, has more than enough money to self-fund a campaign. But to remain viable, he must accrue 130,000 individual donors to qualify for the September debates — or register at 2 percent or more in four DNC-recognized polls.
So far, he’s done so in three.
In a Boston Globe article titled “Where are they? It’s high summer in N.H., but the candidates are elsewhere,” politics reporter James Pindell noted how the weeks leading up to Labor Day this cycle are more barren on the campaign trail than in the past.
Locally, no 2020 candidate has visited the Monadnock Region since former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke spoke July 12 at a "Lights for Liberty" rally in Peterborough.
With the pressure of getting those donors — a minimum of 400 is needed to come from each of at least 20 states — and the polling threshold, the candidates are more likely to be found in a TV studio, on a podcast with a fervent following, or constantly in social media feeds asking for small donations.
“If you’re a campaign that has a built-in grassroots network — someone like Bernie Sanders, certainly Elizabeth Warren, even Beto O’Rourke — ... really there’s no cost-benefit analysis to it. You hit that donor mark pretty easily,” Zach Montellaro, a campaigns reporter with Politico and author of the Morning Score newsletter on federal elections, told The Sentinel Thursday.
By some estimates, such as from New York Times reporter Reid J. Epstein, it costs campaigns an average of $70 just to get a hit on a new donor through social media advertising. This, Epstein illustrated in a recent episode of the Times podcast “The Daily,” has forced some of the candidates to hold larger fundraisers to pay for advertising efforts to reach small donors.
Montellaro, who has become a de facto expert in debate qualifications through his consistent coverage of FEC filings and DNC-approved polls, said the rest of the field has to make hard choices when it comes to small donors and the debates.
“If you’re a candidate outside of that [top tier] — a candidate who doesn’t necessarily have a built-in network, someone who may have been a governor or a [U.S.] House member — you have to decide, you know, how am I gonna spend my resources?” Montellaro said. “Am I going to fly out to Iowa, am I gonna spend money running Facebook ads to try and attract donors? Because it doesn’t matter how much those donors give, it just matters if they give once.”
While DNC Chairman Tom Perez has emphasized the intent of the rules is to incentivize more “grassroots” campaiging, the unintended consequence has left voters like Hay wondering if there is a better way.
“I don’t know how else — if [the Democrats] have that many candidates — how else they winnow it down,” Hay said in a followup conversation Thursday. “Because you can’t track how many people are knocking on doors or dialing phones or something. The only way you can track it is, you know, follow the money.”
Hay said that for a candidate to convince him to donate, he needs to be shown detailed plans. In addition to her ground game, he said, Warren on this front is in a league of her own.
“I think [the Warren campaign] is the best I’ve seen in the area, for sure,” he said.
The only other way campaigns could make Hay get out his wallet, he said, would be if they presented a viable option as VP who would balance Warren on the ticket demographically — such as Cory Booker or Julian Castro — or if a campaign cracked him up with a gimmick, like requesting $17.76 to commemorate the nation’s founding.
As Montellaro notes, under the current incentive structure, the amount of money one person donates has become far less relevant.
“A donor who gives $1 and a donor who gives $2,800, you know, the maximum a donor can give, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s all the same thing to the DNC. A donor is a donor is a donor.”
This article has been changed to correct that the most recent candidate to visit the Monadnock Region was Beto O'Rourke on July 12.