California Forum

Money can’t buy love, but can it buy visibility in Iowa? Behold the “Steyer surge”

They say money can’t buy love, but tell that to Kamala Harris. She just got eclipsed by billionaire Tom Steyer in Morning Consult’s latest poll of early primary state voters. He’s at 7 percent. She trails him by one point.

It’s a comedown for Harris, whose national poll numbers surged to 17 percent after she sucker punched Joe Biden in the first Democratic debate. The strategy worked – temporarily. Like Icarus, she flew high and fell back to Earth, dropping 12 points since June, according to a CNN poll.

Soaring polls made her a serious player. They also made her a target. Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, adopting Harris’ own ambush tactic, hit the former state attorney general on the unflattering parts of her record in the second debate.

Harris stumbled. Now she’s running behind a billionaire known for wearing loud ties in serial television ads starring himself.

They say all political lives end in tragedy, but it’s hard to imagine anything more embarrassing than Harris losing ground to Steyer. In California, Harris is a superstar with a bright future. Most people don’t know Steyer.


But in the 2020 race, where he can spend infinite money on TV ads in small but key states, it’s a different story.

Full disclosure: I previously worked as an advisor to both Harris and Steyer. So, it’s interesting to witness them running neck-and-neck in the race for the White House.

To see Steyer surpass Harris (along with Beto, Booker and Buttigieg) in early primary states is somewhat shocking. He’s been running ads for years to build his profile in California. He came close to running but never pulled the trigger on campaigns for governor and senator.

It’s like the myth of Sisyphus, but with TV ads. Blanketing the airwaves with self-starring ads can raise your name identification in California, but the poll numbers tend to roll back down the hill when it comes to electability. (Yes, there is such a thing.)

California politics is the graveyard of billionaires. Uber-wealthy neophytes have repeatedly tried and failed to buy a big office. The state’s just too large – and too skeptical of billionaires – for the strategy to work.

The 2020 race has different dynamics. With unlimited money to spend in relatively tiny states like Iowa and New Hampshire, Steyer can flood the zone. Iowa has 1 million fewer people than Los Angeles. New Hampshire has 800,000 fewer people than the Sacramento metro area.

By spending millions to blanket the airwaves, Steyer’s broadcasting his message to these influential voters powerfully and repeatedly. It’s working. Fifty-six percent of voters in early states now know his name.

No other candidate has this advantage. They must bide their time, save their cash and hope Steyer’s strategy fizzles. Some may try to help it fail by planting negative stories about his former hedge fund’s investments in things like fossil fuels and private prisons.

The knives come out when your numbers climb. Just ask Harris.

Steyer’s $100 million campaign may not achieve victory, but it could pressure the Democratic establishment and shift the debate. One can argue that his money succeeded in elevating climate change and impeachment as key issues for Democrats.

Whoever emerges victorious in the primary will likely seek his financial support. In our money hungry political system, any politician who’s not a billionaire is usually begging billionaires for cash.

As I wrote in June, Biden’s most likely the nominee (if his slip-ups don’t sink him). The question is which exciting, dynamic and younger Democrat he might choose as his vice president.

Will it be the former California attorney general who ruthlessly tried to kneecap him before slipping in the polls? Might he gamble on the California billionaire currently surging ahead of her in key states?

With California’s 55 Electoral College votes pretty much locked down for any Democrat with a pulse in 2020, a Golden State VP seems unlikely.

Gil Duran is California Opinion Editor of The Sacramento Bee.
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