Surging Steyer makes the debate stage, as new polls show sudden strength

Tom Steyer appears to be moving up.

The billionaire environmental advocate turned Democratic presidential candidate is soaring in two new Fox News polls in the early primary and caucus states of South Carolina and Nevada.

And those two surveys put Steyer over the top – and onto the stage at next week’s Democratic presidential nomination debate in Iowa.

FOX NEWS POLL: STEYER SURGES TO 15 PERCENT IN SOUTH CAROLINA

FOX NEWS POLL: STEYER JUMPS 7 POINTS IN NEVADA

Steyer stands at 15 percent in South Carolina – second only to former Vice President Joe Biden – who’s the overwhelming favorite in the state where black voters make up a majority of Democratic presidential primary electorate. Steyer’s surged 11 percentage points from the previous Fox News poll in South Carolina, which was conducted in October.

Steyer stands at 12 percent support in Nevada, a jump of 7 points from a Fox News survey in November. He trails Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders and is tied with Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for third place.

“We’ve been seeing this for a while. In every single poll we’ve seen in every one of the four early primary states, what we’ve seen is that as the message gets known, as people hear me, I do better every single time. I got in late and we’ve been building,” Steyer told Fox News on Thursday evening after the release of the two surveys.

Steyer – who’s made combating climate change the centerpiece of his campaign – has flooded the airwaves in the four early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina since declaring his candidacy for the White House last July. The candidate has spent nearly $13 million in South Carolina and nearly $10 million in Nevada, according to the political ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. That's far more than any of his 2020 nomination rivals.

Asked if his ads fueled his surge, Steyer told Fox News, “No, it’s my message.”

But Republican pollster Daron Shaw, who conducts the Fox News Poll with Democrat Chris Anderson, noted that in South Carolina it “appears Steyer has spent himself into a potentially relevant position, as he’s knocking on the door of the 15 percent delegate threshold.”

STEYER CHALLENGES 2020 RIVAL BUTTIGIEG OVER CLIMATE CHANGE

Veteran Democratic strategist Julia Barnes pointed out that “Steyer has a compelling take on combating climate change to be sure.”

But Barnes – a veteran of the 2016 Sanders presidential campaign who remains neutral in the 2020 Democratic race – emphasized that Steyer's monetary resources cannot be ignored.

“Because of his unique ability to self-fund, voters are seeing his ads everywhere, in a volume other candidates just simply cannot match," she said. "To say that is not a factor in his poll recognition is silly.”

She noted that “a media blitz may get poll numbers up, but at the end of the day, candidates have to persuade and retain a voter’s commitment beyond TV ads.”

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks with reporters on Jan. 9, 2020 in Manchester, NH

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer speaks with reporters on Jan. 9, 2020 in Manchester, NH

Steyer said he already met the individual donor criteria to qualify for Tuesday’s debate. And with the two Fox News polls, he now says he’s reached the polling threshold. He’ll take the stage along with Biden, Sanders, Warren, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey are on the bubble to qualify, but it appears unlikely they’ll make the stage -- a situation likely to renew diversity concerns, with only white candidates making the cut so far. The Democratic National Committee will formally announce which candidates have qualified after the end-of-Friday deadline for the candidates to reach the criteria.

That means Steyer will probably be the only non-politician on the stage.

“For me, as someone who’s not famous, but who has something to say that I think is different, who has a background that is different from all of those career politicians who are also on the stage, it’s a statement that I get a chance to be there and have people listen and see what kind of person I am,” Steyer said.

Some of Steyer’s 2020 rivals in recent months have charged that he’s bought his way onto the debate stage.

“His ability to spend millions of his personal wealth has helped him gain in the polls like no one else,” Booker wrote a couple months ago in an email seeking donations.

And Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who dropped out of the race in December, argued during the summer and autumn that the DNC’s rules "have allowed a billionaire to bankroll his way onto the debate stage, while governors and senators with decades of public service experience have been forced out of the race.”

Steyer has pushed back, saying he has things to say "that resonate with voters" and that he's also urged the DNC to make the debate criteria more inclusive.

The 62-year old former hedge fund manager from California has become a player in national politics. Five years ago he created NextGenAmerica, a grassroots advocacy organization that helped drive the youth vote in 2018 midterm elections, helping the Democrats win back the House of Representatives. And starting two and a half years ago, he became one of the ringleaders in the push to impeach President Trump through his "Need to Impeach" movement.

On Friday, Steyer unveiled a new immigration proposal which would make immigrants fleeing the devastating effects of climate change eligible to enter the U.S. legally. Part of Steyer’s proposal also calls for the U.S. to help countries combat climate change by providing funding, equipment, and American expertise.