Young voters have a terrible record for actually going out to the polls, but billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer thinks spending $25 million will change that.
The 58-year-old California philanthropist and his advocacy group, NextGen Climate, are launching an effort to get out the youth vote, using environmental issues to galvanize them.
Steyer joined Take Two to talk about the effort and why millennial voters could turn the tide in the presidential and congressional elections.
The following transcript has been edited slightly for length.
You have pledged $25 million toward mobilizing young voters. Why spend your money this way?
I feel as if we are faced, as Americans, with the starkest choice between likely presidential candidates. And what I’m really trying to do is empower democracy, to try and give voice to young people, to register them, to educate them, because I believe that the broader the participation in the democratic process, the more people who go to the ballot box and vote, the better the decisions will be, and the stronger our democracy, and that’s what I’m trying to push for.
How specifically do you see this money being spent?
We’re going to be on over 203 campuses in seven battleground states — setting up tables, doing door-to-door, setting up phone banks. But a big part of it will also be online — contacting young people through digital communications — and also we’ll try and do some fun things. You know, this is the biggest cohort in American politics now, the millennials, and they are people who care a great deal about climate justice, environmental justice, and so it’s important that their voice be heard.
You mentioned these battleground states: Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Illinois and Colorado. Not California, where you live. Why not?
We will be doing more in California than in any other state. But when we talked about this specific program, we were talking about the battleground states in the presidential election, and those actually don’t include California, because California is generally thought to be a state which tends to support the Democratic candidate.
How much will the environmental message be part of this campaign to lure younger voters out to vote? And why that specific issue?
We need to succeed at that issue in order to succeed as a society. But it will never be disconnected from people’s needs to succeed economically and to have a safe, secure environment to live in and raise their kids in.
Many young voters are looking at the economy right now and saying, “I’ll never be able to afford a house of my own. I don’t have a job.” How do you get them to see that connection when they might have some very real, very practical issues that might come first for them?
So this is an issue where overwhelming numbers of millennials agree with us. Secondly, if we were to move to predominantly clean energy over the next 14 years, that is going to produce over a million new jobs — and good-paying jobs. So when we think about this, this is going to be a broad-based infrastructure project around the United States of America, paying good wages.
Your advocacy group, NextGen Climate, put out a video aimed at getting out the youth vote. I played this video for some millennials we have in house, and they said, “Yeah, this isn’t really speaking to me.” How do you know that your money is being well-spent with this campaign?
Well, let me put it this way, the people who are going to run this program are millennials. We are going to try a lot of creative approaches, and some of them are going to work, and some of them aren’t. And that’s just the nature of the beast. The fact of the matter is, we are going to relentlessly try to engage people in that generation to make sure that they are educated and understand the importance of these issues.
Earlier this year you told the Washington Post that you plan to spend even more in this election cycle than you did in 2014, and back then you put in $70 million. How much do you think you might spend, and how do you think you might spend it?
We are going to do several other things that, like this, are specific programs that are organized around a specific group of people and methods. And we’re going to roll those out over time. I believe, last I checked, it will add up to more than we spent last time, but we’d like to do it piece by piece, and we want to do it when we’re completely organized, the way that we did around this campus program.
You are at the top of the list of individual contributors to super PACs so far. A lot of people in this country right now are worried about the effect that a very small handful of people — people with a lot of money, people such as yourself — can have on this country. How do you address some of those concerns?
What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to do as much voter-to-voter contact, to enable voters’ voices to be heard. That’s what we believe in. And lastly, I have no self-interest in what we’re doing. We are simply trying to make the American people have a stronger, better-articulated voice. I’m not going to profit in any way from what we’re doing. In fact, what we’re really trying to do, is make the system work better and have the things that we think are most important for our society in general be well-known and let the people decide.