Surging Steyer qualifies for Democratic debate

By Zach Montellaro

Billionaire Tom Steyer has qualified for next week's Democratic presidential debate on the strength of an apparent polling surge in two early-nominating states.

Two Fox News polls released on Thursday evening, just one day ahead of the qualification deadline, show Steyer in double-digits, moving past some top-tier candidates on his way to making the debate stage.

In a new Fox News poll in Nevada, former Vice President Joe Biden leads Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 23 percent to 17 percent. Steyer is tied for third place with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), with both at 12 percent.

Former South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a distant fifth at 6 percent, followed by Andrew Yang’s 4 percent.

In a second new poll, in South Carolina, Biden is well ahead with 36 percent of the vote. But Steyer is in second place with 15 percent, jockeying with Sanders (14 percent) and Warren (10 percent).

No other candidate cracks double digits. Buttigieg is well back in fifth, at 4 percent, with no other candidate higher than 2 percent.

Steyer has inundated early-state markets with advertising since beginning his presidential bid in July. In six months he’s shoveled out $11.2 million in South Carolina on TV spots and lots of direct mail appeals. In Nevada, he's put out $10.3 million in television and radio ads so far, and has an additional $270,000 booked. That's well ahead of the second-highest spender in the state: Warren, who has $1.2 million aired or booked through February.

His most recent TV spot, airing exclusively in South Carolina and Nevada markets, features mostly black and Hispanic voters lauding his ability to beat Trump. One ad in Nevada is entirely in Spanish.

In South Carolina, which is the largest early state by population but votes fourth in the Democratic nominating process, Steyer is outspending the rest of the field by several million dollars, including Biden, who has earmarked over $800,000 in ads there so far but has promised $6 million to spend closer to the Feb. 29 primary.

Candidates can qualify for the debate, which is set to be on Jan. 14 in Iowa, by hitting 5 percent in four polls approved by the Democratic National Committee — or 7 percent in two early state polls. Candidates also need to hit 225,000 unique donors.

Steyer hits the early-state polling route through the Fox News polls released on Thursday, and has previously announced that he has hit the donor threshold.

Steyer joins five other candidates who have already qualified for the debate: Biden, Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren.

Steyer is the only candidate who, so far, has fulfilled just the early-state polling route. The other five candidates hit both 7 percent in two early state polls and 5 percent in four polls, early state or national.

Crucially, the pair of Fox News polls does not bring any of the other bubble candidates any closer to making it on stage, with the Friday night deadline rapidly approaching.

Yang — who has said he has hit the donor mark, but only has one of the four needed polls — was at 4 percent in Nevada and 2 percent in South Carolina.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has hit the donor mark but has not reached 5 percent support in any qualifying polls, was at 3 percent in Nevada and 2 percent in South Carolina.

The last candidate with an outside shot, Tulsi Gabbard — who has not publicly said she has hit the donor mark, but was within striking distance and also does not have any qualifying polls — registered 2 percent support in Nevada and 1 percent in South Carolina.

A third Fox News poll released Thursday from Wisconsin does not count as a qualifying poll. Biden is at 23 percent to Sanders’ 21 percent. Warren is at 13 percent, Buttigieg is at 9 percent and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is at 7 percent.

In head-to-head matchups in Wisconsin, which is expected to be a closely-watched general election state, Biden leads President Donald Trump, 46 percent to 41 percent. Sanders leads Trump, 46 percent to 42 percent.

There is at least one more poll coming before the qualifying deadline: The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll, which will be released Friday evening.

Hanging over the debate is the looming Trump impeachment trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told Republican senators on Thursday that he expects House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to transmit the articles of impeachment as soon as Friday, POLITICO reported, which could mean the trial starting as soon as Monday or Tuesday.

DNC chairman Tom Perez said on MSNBC earlier in the week the party would reschedule the debate if the trial, which requires Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren to attend, creates a conflict. "Obviously, if there’s a trial on the 14th, then we’ll move the debate," said Perez. "If there’s not, then we’re going to have the debate.”

A DNC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment for what the party committee’s plans are for Tuesday’s debate.

All three Fox News polls were conducted between Jan. 5-8. The South Carolina poll surveyed 808 Democratic primary voters and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points. The Nevada poll surveyed 635 Democratic caucus-goers and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percentage points.

The Wisconsin poll surveyed 671 Democratic primary voters, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percentage points. For the general election matchups, 1,504 voters were polled, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 2.5 percentage points.

Maya King contributed to this report.