California billionaire Tom Steyer spent $47 million in 84 days on presidential bid

Tom Steyer, pictured at the California Democratic Convention in March, has said he would spend $100 million of his wealth on his presidential bid.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

California billionaire Tom Steyer spent $47 million during the first three months of his presidential bid — a jaw-dropping sum that places him on track to join the biggest self-funding political candidates in American history.

So far, Steyer has remained mired in the low single digits in the polls in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The candidate who has topped most of these polls, former Vice President Joe Biden, finds himself in a precarious financial position — he spent more money than he raised in recent months, and has significantly less in the bank than his top rivals, according to campaign finance disclosure forms released late Tuesday.

Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic consultant, said Biden is better known than his Democratic rivals because of his nearly half-century in office, so he may not need as much money as other candidates. However, the campaign finance numbers — Biden raised $15.7 million and spent $17.7 million in the third quarter of 2019, leaving him with $9 million in the bank — could send a negative signal to donors, Sragow said.


“Insiders and donors look at how much he has not raised and how much he does not have on hand, and that’s discouraging to them,” Sragow said. “Donors don’t like to waste their money on losers.”

Presidential candidates’ fundraising and spending from July 1 to Sept. 30 were detailed in mandated campaign finance disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.

The disclosures come less than four months before the first contest is held in Iowa in February.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg raised the most money among Democrats and also have the greatest cash reserves.

The rest of the field is lagging. California Sen. Kamala Harris’ fundraising was flat at $11.8 million. She spent $14.6 million, nearly double the amount spent in the prior quarter. She has $10.5 million cash on hand.

Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg cash reserves well ahead of Democratic rivals

(Figures in millions of dollars)

  Candidate Money raised Money spent Cash on hand
imgBernie Sanders CandidateBernie Sanders Contributions$28.0 Spent$21.6 Cash on hand$33.7
imgElizabeth Warren CandidateElizabeth Warren Contributions24.7 Spent18.7 Cash on hand25.7
imgPete Buttigieg CandidatePete Buttigieg Contributions19.2 Spent18.5 Cash on hand23.4
imgKamala Harris CandidateKamala Harris Contributions11.8 Spent14.6 Cash on hand10.5
imgJoe Biden CandidateJoe Biden Contributions15.7 Spent17.7 Cash on hand9.0
imgAndrew Yang CandidateAndrew Yang Contributions9.9 Spent4.4 Cash on hand6.4
imgCory Booker CandidateCory Booker Contributions6.0 Spent7.2 Cash on hand4.2
imgAmy Klobuchar CandidateAmy Klobuchar Contributions4.8 Spent7.8 Cash on hand3.7
imgBeto O CandidateBeto O'Rourke Contributions4.5 Spent6.4 Cash on hand3.3
imgTom Steyer CandidateTom Steyer Contributions49.6* Spent47.0 Cash on hand2.6

Data are from July 1 to Sept. 30 and based on campaign finance disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission on Oct. 15.

* Tom Steyer contributed $47.6 million of his own money to his campaign.

Source: Federal Election Commission


President Trump raised $41 million during this period, and his joint fundraising committees with the Republican National Committee raised tens of millions of dollars more — showing the power of incumbency. (The Democrat who wins the party’s nomination will eventually be able to raise larger sums with the national and state parties.)

Trump’s GOP rivals for the nomination — former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld — have raised a pittance in comparison to the president.

Steyer is the Democratic candidate who can immediately match or surpass the Trump campaign financially. The hedge fund manager turned eco-warrior, who has a fortune worth about $1.6 billion, announced his candidacy in July after saying earlier he was not going to run. He has donated $47.6 million to his campaign and raised an additional $2 million, according to the FEC reports.

Elizabeth Warren feels the heat, Joe Biden defends his age and his son and Pete Buttigieg goes on the attack in Democrats’ October debate.

Oct. 15, 2019

Much of Steyer’s spending was devoted to earning him a place on Tuesday night’s debate stage, including $15.6 million on media ad buys, $14.8 million on digital ads and $3.7 million on direct mail, according to the disclosure forms. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more were spent on production costs. Steyer’s spending led several of his rivals to accuse him of trying to buy a spot on the debate stage.

These efforts helped Steyer meet the polling and small-donor thresholds to qualify for the debate. During the faceoff with 11 of his Democratic rivals, Steyer did not have a moment that is likely to generate a boost in the polls, where he is mired in the low single digits.

The 62-year-old has never run for public office. He is among the biggest Democratic donors in the country and has been among the most vocal advocates of impeaching Trump.


If Steyer continues his donating and spending patterns, he is on track to join the ranks of major self-funding political hopefuls.

Presidential candidates Ross Perot in 1992 and Steve Forbes in 2000 spent the equivalent of a little over $110 million in today’s dollars, modern-day records Steyer could easily break if he keeps spending at the same pace, said Douglas Weber, a senior researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics. Steyer has said, however, he would spend $100 million of his own money on his race.

Perot’s and Forbes’ bids were unsuccessful.

“Typically self-funding doesn’t lead to success, in part because candidates’ fundraising helps candidates become better at connecting with voters,” said Rick Hasen, a campaign-finance law professor at UC Irvine. He added that Steyer’s “$47 million hasn’t bought him very much. He could pay off the fines of all the ex-felons in Florida to make sure they are re-enfranchised for the next election and probably have a lot more influence on the next election.”

While Biden and Harris have devoted large chunks of their time headlining events for big donors in California and across the nation, the candidates who raised and banked the most money were those who have sworn off these ritzy fundraisers.

Sanders raised $28 million, spent $21.6 million and has $33.7 million in cash on hand, according to the reports. Warren raised $24.7 million and spent $18.7 million, with $25.7 million in the bank.

Buttigieg, who has support from small-dollar contributors as well as big-dollar donors, lags behind the top candidates in the polls but can compete with them financially, which could be critical in coming months should the dynamics of the race change. He raised $19.2 million, spent $18.5 million and has $23.4 million in the bank.


Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is running a campaign focused on the impacts of automation on the workforce, raised $9.9 million and has $6.4 million in the bank — more than several of his better-known rivals, including former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Obama administration official Julián Castro and Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.

Still, any of these candidates are in a better place than Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam. His campaign finance report showed he raised $5 — a figure the presidential hopeful says must be a mistake.

Times staff writer Melissa Gomez contributed to this report from Miramar, Fla.