Tom Steyer talks organizing amid a pandemic and what he learned from his campaign


Tom Steyer speaks to potential caucusgoers on Jan. 27 in the Scheman Building at Iowa State.

Jake Webster

Former presidential candidate Tom Steyer is continuing to support the work of NextGen to encourage young voters to turn out in the 2020 general election amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[A]ll of the direct face-to-face organizing is off for the foreseeable future and it’s unclear how much if any of the campaign can be done on a grassroots basis,” Steyer said in an interview with the Daily. “[…] We’re preparing scenarios to do grassroots [organizing] without ever doing on-campus organizing and door knocking.”

The billionaire philanthropist said they are trying to expand the reach and amount of their digital ad program, and they will be “using texts and petitions” to help organize ahead of the election. Steyer said it’s hard to know exactly what the situation will look like in seven months when the general election is scheduled to take place.

“It seems there’s going to be a much heavier emphasis on vote-by-mail,” Steyer said. “[…] There’s going to be a real impetus to be pushing that directly.”

Steyer said the situation with the novel coronavirus is changing at a “very rapid” speed. He said the disease was largely unknown until reports of it emerged Dec. 31 from early cases in Wuhan, China, and how quickly the situation in the United States has changed in just the past month.

The ex-2020 candidate, whose presidential campaign focused on combating climate change as its defining issue, said he thinks the pandemic is “sucking all the oxygen out of the room.” He added the economic damage the disease is causing is also dominating coverage.

“We’ve really had two weeks of dramatic economic impact if you follow the unemployment statistics,” Steyer said. “For the time being that’s where all the emphasis is going to be.”

Climate cannot be allowed to “get shoved under the rug” when organizing, Steyer said.

“If you care about your future you’ve got to be caring about the science issues of the world, although [climate change is] not the most pressing at the moment,” Steyer said.

The former presidential hopeful discussed the 2020 Democratic primary and the pending general election.

Steyer ended his presidential campaign following the Feb. 29 South Carolina primary. He said one of the lessons he took from the campaign is “how important young people are,” calling young voters the “swing vote in the United States of America.” Young voters are the biggest and most diverse generation in history but vote at half the rate of other Americans, Steyer said.

The Democratic presidential nominating contest is effectively frozen, with many states delaying their primaries during the COVID-19 process and social distancing guidelines preventing campaigns from organizing rallies and traditional grassroots organizing efforts such as door knocking.

Asked whether an endorsement of either of the remaining candidates would be forthcoming, Steyer said he has always said he will endorse the eventual Democratic nominee and it is important for Democrats to “get behind the candidate.”

“I think Democrats are going to have to take over the megaphone in this country, which is not an easy thing to do because Donald Trump is someone who is very good at dominating the press,” Steyer said. “[…] Seven months from now we’re going to have a report card on how this administration reacted [to the pandemic] and I think it’s going to tell a very stark story and I think it’s going to be very important that in particular young people show up to vote.”