When billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer launched a digital petition drive to impeach President Donald Trump two months ago, some Democratic Party leaders dismissed it as an unhelpful vanity project — and even Steyer thought he’d top out at a million signatures.
But nearly four million digital signatures later, the philanthropist and environmental activist’s unlikely campaign has seized on an issue — impeaching Trump — that could become part of the Democratic mainstream in 2018. It’s placed at his fingertips a potentially powerful tool: an email list of millions of motivated activists who he can reach instantly for organizing and fundraising and that could become the hottest trove of data in Democratic politics since the email list that Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton collected in 2016.
Steyer’s digital success is fueling intense curiosity about what he’ll do with that tool in the future — and whether he’ll use it beyond his California base, for a White House bid of his own.
“That’s how you build a grassroots operations for a presidential campaign. And if you are that guy who started this, that’s certainly a leg up in organizing a 50-state strategy,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant in California who is advising former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, in his gubernatorial campaign. “That’s what he’s building, and it’s probably second only to Bernie Sanders’ list, and may be eclipsing it. Every election cycle has its own dynamics, and whoever is tapping into the sentiments of their own base usually has an advantage.”
Despite the opposition of party leadership, Madrid said Steyer has shown “there’s a huge vacuum for somebody like Tom Steyer to come in and tap into the activist base — and even beyond that — where some are willing to sign up.”
Campaign experts say Steyer’s petition drive is breaking new ground in digital organizing in the nontraditional political terrain of the Trump era, though it’s been anchored by an traditional media onslaught — national television ads that have been running nonstop since Oct. 20. So far, 3.73 million people have signed on to Steyer’s NeedToImpeach.com drive, which has brought his message into the living rooms of millions of average Americans.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released this week showed that 41 percent of Americans now back impeachment hearings — higher than the percentage that would support Trump in a 2020 election. And in a recent vote, 58 House Democrats backed Rep. Al Green’s call for impeachment — a dramatic shift from the two who supported impeachment at the start of Steyer’s drive in October.