How Tom Steyer Built the Biggest Political Machine You’ve Never Heard Of

Oct 19, 2018 by

The Atlantic


Having spent $120 million and signed up 6 million people, Tom Steyer has assembled, in a year, an organization with more reach than the NRA.

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Tom Steyer knows how crazy he’s driving Democrats by pushing impeachment. That only encourages him. MIKE BLAKE / REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO—In one room, they’re building multicolored matrices matching purchases in their online store to hashtags in affiliated Twitter accounts. In another, they’re texting supporters, tracking and amping up RSVPs to the first-anniversary town hall coming up on Saturday in New Jersey. Over at the creative pod, they’ve already cut a 30-second web ad off the idea that came up in the morning meeting. They’re tracking down supporters’ cell-phone numbers. There’s a staffer scanning bar codes on personalized postcards that have been returned, which will now be digitized and emailed to the people whose mailing addresses weren’t working. They’re prepping a glossy mailer that will hit 3.1 million people next week.

And if Democrats win the House, Need to Impeach will immediately move to the next phase, with a plan that includes activating its list to immediately pressure new members to sign on with Donald Trump’s impeachment, flooding them long before they have staffs set up in Washington. A group of constitutional lawyers is already under contract drafting specific articles of impeachment against Trump, which it will then mail to supporters. (If and when Bob Mueller puts out a report, they may do an update.)

“We just turn on the spigot,” said Kevin Mack, the chief strategist at Need to Impeach, “right away.”

Mike Bloomberg has made headlines for becoming the biggest Democratic donor of the midterm cycle, spreading $100 million to campaigns as he looks to build goodwill for a possible 2020 campaign. Tom Steyer is in more than $120 million—though it has all gone to building his own machine.

Steyer made a billion and a half dollars as an investor. He has sunk $50 million into Need to Impeach—so far—turning him into a familiar face in TV ads and, last year, on a Times Square billboard. Along the way, he has driven most top Democrats crazy by pushing them to take out the president, which they argue only helps vulnerable Republicans keep their seats. Bring up his name with Democratic officials and strategists, and the answer is a reliable variation of “Oh God,” or an eye roll. They complain that he’s not interested in hearing what anyone else has to say, that it’s all about him, that the money could have been better spent. They point to how many operatives have come and gone from top positions on his staff.

Steyer likes calling these comments D.C. cocktail-party talk from people too caught up in chasing the majority to tell the truth, and it only encourages him to go harder, with more money, for a bigger splash.

“Other people don’t want to stand up to it. They want to finesse it. They think that their consultants and pollsters will give them the answer,” he adds later. “It’s not that complicated. There’s a criminal who’s attacking the American people. That’s actually what’s going on.”

For all the concerned, rich liberals around the country, no one has built anything like this. Steyer clearly enjoys being able to wag that in their faces. He likes the iconoclasm. That he’s annoying so many people only convinces him more that he’s right.

“They like the money,” Steyer told me when I asked him why no one else with his politics and millions has built anything like this. “There are a whole bunch of people who are worth a whole lot of money who like that money a whole lot.”

In under a year, without realizing what it would become, Steyer and a small crew on the third floor of a small office building in the Financial District here built the biggest voter list in politics—bigger than the NRA, millions bigger than any group that is better known or has been around longer. And it’s not just the well over 6 million people who’ve signed his online petition to impeach Trump—500,000 new ones since July, on pace to be 300,000 in October alone, and growing by at least 3,000 per day, with spikes around big news such as Michael Cohen’s plea deal and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. It’s email addresses and mailing addresses, now mined to connect with voter data and Need to Impeach’s own surveys and polls.

The standard in politics is that a list needs to be redone about every three years, with people moving or dying or changing their information. By that measure, a constantly updated list that’s only a year old is as good as one that’s 18 million people big.

The staff is crunching the numbers: For every 1 million voters, about 60 percent are registered, half support Democrats, and about 40 percent reliably show up to the polls. For every 1 million people who’ve signed up with Need to Impeach, 85 percent are registered, 95 percent support Democrats, and 75 percent reliably show up.

All of Steyer’s operations run out of the office building here in the Financial District. Need to Impeach takes up half of the third floor. In a city where everyone is taking Ubers and paying for coffee with Square, the walls are off-beige, decorated only with a “Wall of Fame” highlighting top supporters, made out of computer printouts arranged with colored yarn that places them on a map of the country—Des Moines and Nevada, but also Lake Union, Washington, and Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. There’s no air-conditioning. It’s quiet, all the staffers burrowed into their computers. The most character in the place is in a conference room labeled The Mana Fort, with a hand-drawn cartoon, on the glass wall, of Trump raising his arms behind bars and “Lock him up” written over it.

The Need to Impeach office in San Francisco’s Financial District

There are now 60 people on staff, a third of them working as field organizers around the country. Using new online tools, they can multiply their effectiveness; the head of technology estimates that his team of five can do as much as 30 people could have done just six years ago on the then–technologically advanced Obama reelection campaign. A new designer started just this week at headquarters. The staffers come from Uber, Google, Planned Parenthood, private consulting. One spent years as a professional online poker player.

Mack, who has the most campaign experience of any of them, put his Virginia-based political mail business on hold to move out here for a job on about 24 hours’ notice, thinking then that he was coming to run the California Senate campaign that Steyer pulled the plug on the day before it was set to launch. Mack shifted to Need to Impeach instead.

Not everyone working for Steyer believes that Trump will be impeached. (“It’s empowering for people to realize how divided the country is,” one worker told me. “Day to day, you don’t think things can change.”) Not everyone who has signed up with his group does either.

“Impeachment to them is a value—it’s not a legislative process,” said Mack. “It’s like, ‘Build that wall.’”

Staffers draw inspiration from the 2016 strategy of the Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale: Bombard areas and people that have been paid less attention to with digital ads, picking up supporters for a fraction of the cost. They talk about how the lesson of Fox News is how powerful it can prove to keep hitting a contained but committed audience with a clear and uncomplicated narrative.

And they’re getting responses, raising $900,000 so far from 36,252 donors to further the efforts, but which they turn around and use to hook people in more. By their numbers, 70 percent of people who’ve given have stepped up to do more afterward.

They encourage, they prep, and they track. Supporters sent 52,133 personalized emails and made 29,649 phone calls to senators around the time of the Kavanaugh hearings, for example, and 683 of those went to the office of Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Democrat who announced he would be a no a few days after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.

“Our list wants to impeach the president, but that’s not an isolated action for them,” said Martha Patzer, the group’s head of digital.

More than 70,000 members have handwritten 1.58 million note cards to others; they’re provided with prepaid postage in packets of 10 from headquarters. Each one is paired with a follow-up email. Three hundred digital ads went up just around the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Every television ad starts with the assumption of $1 million behind it. After an initial goal of 10, they’re up to 40 town halls around the country, finishing with one in north Jersey on Saturday that will celebrate the group’s first anniversary, and a final one in Greensboro, North Carolina, the following week.

The list is 62 percent women, most of them over 50, which explains why the group invested in house-shaped cookie cutters and “Flip the House” spatulas to send out as swag in the final weeks. But it’s also on 421 college campuses. Jojo, the six-millionth petition signer, whom Steyer called by FaceTime on Tuesday afternoon to congratulate (after asking his staff, “Is she going to be on a picture phone?”), is a sophomore at Mount Holyoke. They talked about the voter-registration table set up outside the cafeteria and the counseling services provided on campus for students triggered by the Kavanaugh hearings.

Tom Steyer chats via FaceTime with a college sophomore who was the six-millionth person to sign his petition to impeach President Trump.

At the town halls, a few questions come up reliably: “What about Mike Pence?” “Who else can we impeach?”

A year ago, steyer had a conversation with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who’s both an old friend and his member of Congress. He hasn’t talked to her since, nor has he put out a call to Jerry Nadler, the New York congressman in line to run the Judiciary Committee if the majority flips, or anyone like that.

To him, that’s the point of his approach.

“We’re not going and talking to senators. We’re not going and talking to representatives. What we’re doing is talking to the American people because the only thing that matters is if the American people decide this ain’t okay, and it’s not close to okay,” Steyer said.

He knows the math. Even if Democrats take the House, almost no one expects them to end up in the majority in the Senate, and they certainly won’t be close to the 67 votes it would take to actually remove Trump. And it’s not like all the Democrats would vote for it anyway.

Steyer made his fortune by analyzing business plans, taking a hard line on what could work and what was wishful thinking.

On impeachment, he says people should join him on the leap of faith.

“Instead of being so smart, why don’t those people ask what the truth is? And the truth is that we have a reckless, dangerous, and lawless president who breaks the law every day, who’s refusing to do his job, and actually it’s very dangerous to every American,” Steyer said. “And instead of trying to figure out exactly the tactics that will make it work or not, we need to start telling the truth about the most important points.”

The other question that comes up at the town halls and with everyone in the political world: “Are you going to run for president?” Because that’s of course a good explanation for pumping all this cash into creating a political organization that only he has the keys to and that spends a lot of money putting his face all over TV.

Steyer likes banging on tables when he talks, and the most reliable way to get him banging is to remind him how many people think that this is all about laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. He has a standard answer about deciding after November what he can do that would do the most good. That answer obviously isn’t no.

Need to Impeach staffers point out how much ad testing they can do on YouTube and how the ads that are locked in on Steyer’s face dependably do better. Convenient, say the skeptics, just like it’s convenient that he has complete control over all the information that’s been gathered about 6 million people who’ve identified him as a leader of this movement.

“I’m done in terms of being polite about this,” Steyer said. “We’re in a gigantic crisis with an out-of-control president breaking the law and abandoning us in absolutely critical ways, and if people want to make it about the messenger, not the message, then they’re missing the point.”

Steyer has gotten lucky, like when the group’s gambit to run an early impeachment ad on Fox & Friends got the Trump tweet it was hoping for on the third try (275,000 people signed the impeachment petition after the president called Steyer “wacky and unhinged). It has gotten caught unprepared, like when Steyer announced he was buying Michael Wolff’s Fire & Fury for every member of Congress before he knew how to get any copies from the publisher, and staffers were initially delayed by the Capitol Hill police, who refused to let them do the drop-offs.

But they think they’ve broken through. Mack kicked off a planning meeting Tuesday, giddy over a new ad just dropped by a pac funded by the billionaire casino owner and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. It’s full of shots of angry mobs, with a concerned female voiceover warning of a socialist takeover, all building up to, “And then: impeachment. Is that really what you want?”

They scrambled a new ad, and they’re going to run it on CNN and MSNBC, but Mack also wants to pitch it to Fox just to be able to say the network rejected it.

“I’m thrilled. Let’s bring it,” Mack told the staff. “When we kick their ass on Election Night, we can say this is what it was about.”

In a studio one floor down from his office, Steyer did the first run-through of his speech for the Saturday town hall. He talked about what he sees as the five fundamental rights every American should have. He layered in more of his biography than he’s used to. “In order to level the playing field, you have to understand them and beat them at their own game,” he said, “and I do understand them.”

He scribbled notes along the way while a consultant kept a stopwatch going.

“Don’t be scared,” Steyer’s draft ends. “We’re going to win.”

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EDWARD-ISAAC DOVERE is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He was previously chief Washington correspondent at Politico.

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