Joe Biden, man of the people, made a few bucks recently. He and his wife Jill pulled down $15.5 million during the last two years, many multiples of Biden’s income during the eight years he was the lowly vice president.
The latest presidential sweepstakes entrant, financier Tom Steyer, is so wealthy he’s willing to spend $100 million of his own money on a presidential campaign. Steyer is a former hedge fund manager worth $3.1 billion, according to Bloomberg—roughly the same net worth as President Donald Trump.
Of the top five Democrats in the 2020 presidential race, three—Biden, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren—have family income that puts them in the top 1% of earners. Even socialist Bernie Sanders is a 5-percenter, with 2018 income of $566,000. Only Pete Buttigieg, who’s polling at No. 5 in the race, is unrich. His family income was $153,000 last year, and he and husband Chasten are paying off $130,000 in student loans.
Are wealthy candidates a problem? Not necessarily. Biden and Sanders got wealthy late in life, after decades of public service for modest pay. Warren has been a Harvard professor and bestselling author who has championed the middle class in her books for years. Harris is a lifetime prosecutor whose husband, a lawyer, earns the majority of the family income. And Trump himself proves a billionaire can resonate with (some) ordinary people.
But the wealthy Democrats illustrate two things. First, money finds a way into politics. Steyer, the newcomer, would have no chance as a candidate if he weren’t a billionaire. He may still have no chance, but he will have the money to run ads likely to be seen by millions, giving him a megaphone other presidential hopefuls don’t have. It’s Trump’s 2016 strategy, except in blue.
Second, a career in public life has allowed prominent Democrats to capitalize on their fame. Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris have earned big bucks from books that wouldn’t have sold if they weren’t well-known for their political ambition. And Biden followed a well-worn path after leaving government in 2017, pulling down $4.2 million for giving 48 paid speeches over a 14-month stretch.
There are other Democrats running for president who earn far less than the frontrunners. But many Americans know little about Julian Castro or Jay Inslee or Seth Moulton, second-tier candidates who may not last into 2020. Rep. Eric Swalwell has already dropped out of the presidential race, with more likely to follow by fall.
The wealthy frontrunners, meanwhile, may have started out as humble everymen and women. But they’re not that anymore. Voters may not care, unless they sense a phony vibe emanating from wealthy candidates trying to pretend they are not.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman