Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist and 2020 presidential candidate, qualified for the latest Democratic debate against what appeared to be improbable odds. Even as the debate stage narrowed to six people, even as viable candidates like Andrew Yang and Deval Patrick failed to make the cut, even as highly experienced senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have already dropped out of the race due to a lack of funding, Tom Steyer the billionaire was there—answering questions from moderators and discussing policy proposals as if he actually has a shot at becoming the next president of the United States.
How did this happen? In a nutshell, the Democratic National Committee’s rules require candidates to meet two thresholds in order to participate in the debates: a polling threshold and a fundraising threshold, and Steyer made both of them.
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Steyer polled well above the qualifying 7% on two Fox News polls, one in South Carolina and one in Nevada. He hit 15% and 12%, respectively. Meanwhile, Steyer hit the 225,000 unique donor threshold in early January, The Hill reported, even as the DNC upped the ante and made qualifying for the debate even more difficult.
So the reality is, Steyer played by the rules and qualified, and, sure, he spent at least $47 million to get there, but he qualified by the rules nonetheless. Of course, that didn’t stop countless commentators on social media from asking the question in so many words: Why was Tom Steyer there?
Tom Steyer Andrews his first question, leaving us all still wondering why the hell is he there?????!!! #DemDebate
— SeanKentComedy (@seankent) January 15, 2020
Steyer should have to pay per question
— Mike Royce (@MikeRoyce) January 15, 2020
I’m really appalled that Steyer is there, but Harris, Castro and Booker aren’t.
— Daniel Summers (@WFKARS) January 15, 2020
Steyer buying his way on stage to talk about income inequality is why we’re so tired all the time
— Rachel Cohen (@rmc031) January 15, 2020
WOLF: Mr. Steyer, what are your foreign policy credentials?
TOM STEYER: Well, Wolf, as a Delta Diamond Medallion® Member,
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) January 15, 2020
In the end, time will tell if Steyer’s higher standing in the polls is a fluke or not. A more recent Quinnipiac poll had him at less than 4%, and an Iowa poll last week had him at 2%. After the Iowa caucuses next month, it’s very likely that the question of why Steyer is there will be moot.