What The Heck Is Going On With Tom Steyer’s Poll Numbers?

Last Thursday, billionaire activist Tom Steyer picked up two really good early-state polls that catapulted him onto the debate stage at the last minute. He hit 15 percent in a Fox News poll of South Carolina — he had 4 percent support in October — and 12 percent in a Fox News poll of Nevada, up from 5 percent in November.

These results had pretty big repercussions for Steyer in both our Nevada and South Carolina state polling averages, putting him at 8 percent in Nevada and 10 percent in South Carolina, as of Monday afternoon. For context, that South Carolina number is roughly the same as Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s:

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But before you cry “Steyer surge!” remember that once you get past the top four candidates — Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg — he and all the other candidates combined currently have a 1 percent chance of capturing a majority of delegates, according to our forecast. And even though his standing in the polls has substantially improved in those two states, he still only has a 2 percent chance of winning South Carolina or Nevada. (He’s also still at 2 percent in our national polling average.)

In fact, those two Fox News surveys might be outliers, as they are the only two early-state polls released after the last debate (Dec. 19) that show Steyer getting that sort of bump, though there have admittedly been relatively few polls to kick us off here in January.

In the other five early-state polls we have — aside from those two Fox News surveys — Steyer’s numbers are far less impressive, although these are polls of Iowa and New Hampshire, not Nevada and South Carolina, where Fox found Steyer surging:

To really understand what’s going on with Steyer’s numbers, we need more polls — especially of South Carolina and Nevada — but at this stage, there is at least one other pollster besides Fox News who has found that Steyer might be making a real dent in the early states: Morning Consult. The pollster’s weekly tracking poll takes stock of the race nationally but also gives its results for the four early states (unfortunately, the early states are treated as a group, so the pollster does not display results for individual early states). And since late November, Morning Consult has found Steyer polling between 8 and 10 percent among early-state voters, including 10 percent in its most recent survey. (He was only at 4 percent nationally.)

What’s more, there’s some evidence in both South Carolina and Nevada that Steyer has made inroads among nonwhite voters, which could be a sign that Biden’s grasp on more diverse states like South Carolina is not as strong as we think. In that Fox News poll of South Carolina, Biden led among black primary voters with 43 percent support, but Steyer was in second with 16 percent — which put him ahead of the rest of the field, including Sanders, who was in third at 12 percent. And in Fox News’s survey of Nevada, no one candidate has a firm grasp on nonwhite voters. Sanders and Biden were running neck and neck at around 25 percent, while Steyer placed third among that group with 14 percent.

Again, it’s hard to know exactly what’s behind this uptick in Steyer’s numbers, but one obvious explanation is his prodigious spending on broadcast television ads. According to data from Kantar/Campaign Media Analysis Group, Steyer ads aired 5,721 times in Nevada-based media markets and 7,914 times in South Carolina-based markets from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9.1 The other Democratic candidates combined have aired six spots in Nevada and 2,195 in South Carolina during that same time period.

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For comparison’s sake, Steyer has aired a similar number of ads in Iowa, but he is sharing the airwaves there with several other candidates. For instance, from Dec. 1 through Jan. 9, Sanders (7,678) and Andrew Yang (6,932) each aired more spots in Iowa than Steyer (6,675). And in tiny New Hampshire, neither Steyer nor other Democrats have been advertising as aggressively. This could explain why Steyer hasn’t (yet) seen a polling bump in the first two states to vote but has done so in the third and fourth.

That said, Steyer has dominated the airwaves in Nevada and South Carolina for months; it’s not clear what changed to cause a sudden spike in his polling numbers here in January. However, it’s worth noting that polling of Nevada and South Carolina has been extremely sparse; before those Fox News polls came out, mid-November was the last time a live-interviewer poll was conducted in South Carolina and the last time any poll was conducted in Nevada. Perhaps more people have tuned into the primary race since then and have only now begun to react to Steyer’s ads.

So we’ll be keeping a close eye on Steyer’s debate performance Tuesday and on the post-debate polls to see whether he has serious staying power. It’s too soon to tell, but Steyer might just be a January surprise no one was expecting.