Steyer: It's messaging, not money, that puts me on debate stage

By Maya Parthasarathy

Billionaire businessman Tom Steyer said on Sunday he made the cutoff for Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate because of his messaging — not the millions of dollars he's spent on advertising.

"I think that the thing that has put me on this stage — and it is the same for every single person who's running for president — is message," Steyer said on CNN's "State of the Union." "I have a very simple message, which is, the government is broken. It's been bought by corporations."

Still, CNN host Jake Tapper pointed out: "The reason people can hear your message, of course, is because of the TV ads and the millions of dollars you've spent."

Steyer has spent $106 million in advertising, especially in early-voting states like Nevada and South Carolina.

"You and your campaign, you make up the overwhelming majority of television ad spending on those states," Tapper said. "Ninety-one percent of television ad spending in South Carolina is from you, and 97 percent of ad spending in Nevada is from you."

Steyer defended his focus, calling himself a "grassroots person" who frequently visits the states.

"We have 82 organizers on the ground in South Carolina," Steyer said. "There is someone who didn't endorse me, who's a politician in South Carolina, who said, 'Steyer came down here, he rolled up his sleeves, he went out, he listened to people, he sat across the table, he worked.'"

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who didn't make Tuesday's Democratic debate cutoff, said the Democratic National Committee rules "have systematically paved the way for a billionaire to buy his way onto the stage."

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang also didn't make the debate, and he and Booker in particular have called for changes in the debate process.

"If the DNC had only done their due diligence and commissioned polls in the early states, Andrew Yang would certainly be on the debate stage next week," Yang campaign chief Nick Ryan said in a statement on Saturday, citing what the campaign said was internal polling data showing Yang at 5 percent in early states.

Five others and Steyer are squaring off at Tuesday's debate, hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses: former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.