Don't dismiss Tom Steyer: He's the most media-savvy candidate going

Don't dismiss Tom Steyer: He's the most media-savvy candidate going
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Even before he officially announced today, pundits dismissed California billionaire Tom SteyerTom SteyerTop 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study California Democrats weigh their recall options Why we should be leery of companies entering political fray MORE’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s a mistake. From a purely media perspective, attention must be paid.

Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager turned liberal activist, has acquired a talent that is in short supply among candidates this season: the ability to say fairly radical things in a way that makes him sound sensible and trustworthy.

Many people across the country have seen his TV commercial pushing for President TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE’s removal, part of Steyer’s $10 million campaign called “Need to Impeach.” Nearly every poll will tell you this is a divisive issue; House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Rural Democrats urge protections from tax increases for family farms Cheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women MORE (D-Calif.) has struggled to suppress the discussion, calling it a polarizing distraction from the 2020 campaign.


Nonetheless, something about that ad pulls you in. It’s Tom Steyer himself, and the way he’s produced his pitch. 

The sell starts out like most political spots: slow-motion video of the president played to moody music while a voice-over cites his misdeeds. The voice belongs to Steyer — but he is not shrill or over-heated. He’s calm. 

The camera then cuts to Steyer, sitting in his living room, dressed in a casual blue shirt. The lighting is soft, the background warm. In the final 30 seconds, the Californian calls Trump “a clear and present danger” and “mentally unstable.” His tone remains determined but composed, moderate, with an unpolished quality that comes across as authentic. The message beneath the message: Steyer is not a wild-eyed radical; he’s thoughtful, even reasonable. He’s working hard to make you feel comfortable with him, and with the tough directive he’s delivering.

By one important measure, the ad worked: As of May, 8 million people had signed on to his impeachment movement, making it by one count the largest  political organization outside of the Democratic and Republican parties. That’s the result of a sophisticated, well-funded and coordinated communication effort involving TV, digital, emails and social media.

Steyer also produced a follow-up commercial, highlighting some of those 8 million. Shot in the heartland city of Minneapolis, the TV spot shows people gathering to meet him. There are quick cuts of everyday Americans, speaking to each other in their considerate, friendly Midwestern manner. Not a crazy human in the bunch, just a lot of people like you and me. Steyer is on a simple stage in that same blue shirt, thanking everyone for helping to “build a community” and to confront this “attack on our values.” This time the music is upbeat and bright; it’s (almost) “Morning in America.”


Subject matter aside, that’s simply a smart use of optimistic imagery and presents a legitimate alternative to current candidates who feel anger and frustration are the best way to communicate commitment. 

Steyer reminds me of another billionaire in politics: Michael BloombergMichael BloombergFour years is not enough — Congress should make the child tax credit permanent Biden's spending plans: Good PR, but bad politics and policy Top 12 political donors accounted for almost 1 of every 13 dollars raised since 2009: study MORE. The former New York mayor captured a lot of attention earlier this year when he explored a run for the presidency himself. Bloomberg would have campaigned as a centrist; Steyer is left of that — just how far left is unclear, at least right now. But they share a certain sensibility.

Like Steyer, Bloomberg wasn’t flashy; he wasn’t a great public speaker. But he made people feel confident about change. He conveyed a trustworthiness that allowed him to initiate policies most New York mayors would not have attempted. Bloomberg raised taxes to eliminate the city’s budget deficit (then lowered taxes when he created a surplus); he built bicycle lanes in the middle of crowded midtown Manhattan, turned streets into pedestrian malls and banned smoking in restaurants. Most of these programs worked, despite every New Yorker’s well-guarded right to complain about everything.

Tom Steyer may not be a carbon-copy of Michael Bloomberg but — like the former mayor — he seems to understand how to use media to cut through the noise: When all about you are losing their heads, you stay composed.

Even so, yes, it’s true — just because he has a lot of money (he spent $67 million in support of Democratic campaigns during the 2018 election cycle) doesn’t mean Steyer can buy his way into a viable candidacy. But neither should he be so quickly cast aside. His long-time involvement with Democratic Party politics, the environment and income inequality all make this more than a vanity operation.

And his media savvy — television, digital, social — means that, at the very least, other candidates should be looking over their shoulders and taking some notes.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.