Tom Steyer, the billionaire Californian who is one of the largest individual donors to Democratic Party causes, thinks the party’s path to victory over President Donald Trump in 2020 is simple: focus on turning out the party’s base. And he says he has the data to prove it.
Steyer, a hedge fund manager and environmentalist who announced in January he would not mount his own bid for president, said in an interview that the work done in 2018 by a constellation of groups he funds shows focusing on turning out new voters is a better way to win than reaching out to moderates and swing voters.
“We can either take the 37 percent of people who voted in 2014 and try to convince 1 or 2 percent of them that we’re more conservative than the Republicans,” he told HuffPost in a phone interview on Friday, referencing a midterm election when historically low turnout led to a Democratic wipeout. “Or we can try to talk to the other 63 percent, who overwhelmingly agree with us but need to be shown voting is worth their time and effort.”
Steyer spent tens of millions of dollars during the 2018 election, with groups he backed ultimately contacting roughly 15 million voters. Much of that cash went to two different groups ― NextGen America, which launched the largest youth turnout effort in the history of American midterm elections, and Need To Impeach, which focused on pushing for the impeachment of Trump. Both efforts, the groups argue in memos provided to HuffPost and based off of voter file data, led to noticeable increases in turnout.
Youth turnout, in particular, spiked from just 18.1 percent in 2014 to 36.7 percent nationwide and nearly 40 percent in the 11 battleground states where NextGen focused its work. Among voters 18 to 29 who had contact with a NextGen organizer, 60 percent cast a ballot. NextGen’s organizers were particularly effective at targeting young voters of color ― black and Latino voters organized by the group turned out at a rate 10 percentage points higher than similar voters who weren’t contacted.
Not all of the youth turnout spike was due to NextGen ― some of the biggest jumps came in Texas and Georgia, two states where the group wasn’t active but Democrats had star candidates in Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams. But overall, Democratic data firms estimated young voters made up roughly a quarter of the electorate and favored Democrats by a margin of 44 percentage points.
Far more controversial than Steyer’s work turning out young voters has been his push to impeach Trump, which has drawn extensive pushback from Democratic Party leaders. In a memo, operatives working for Steyer argue his focus on impeachment helped drive Democratic turnout, noting 79 percent of the 6.2 million people who signed Steyer’s impeachment petition voted, compared with just 57 percent of voters overall. The group found, in particular, that petition signers who were sent handwritten postcards by other people who had signed the Need to Impeach petition saw a significant jump in turnout.
Of the 43 congressional districts targeted by Need To Impeach, Democrats won in 36 of them. In 10 of those, Steyer argues, the increased turnout caused by the group was greater than the Democratic margin of victory.
Steyer rejected the narrative that suburban Democrats’ relative moderation was key to the party winning the House. “I keep reading that the reason Democrats won the House is because we ran as Republican-light and we didn’t stand for anything,” he said. “If you look at these numbers, you’ll see that’s not the case.”
Besides NextGen and Need to Impeach, Steyer also worked with a coalition of unions to fund For Our Future, a super PAC that backed a massive field effort in battleground states, and GiveGreen, which worked with environmental groups to bundle small donations for environment-friendly Democrats.