Billionaire Democratic mega-donor and environmentalist Tom Steyer's "Impeach Trump" petition began as a marginal political operation that was greeted with contempt by Democratic leaders.
But as public support for impeachment has continued to skyrocket over the past several months, Steyer's once-obscure campaign has ballooned into a full-scale "digital army" that analysts say is surpassed in size only by Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) coveted email list.
"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 a traditional media onslaught -- national television ads that have been running nonstop since Oct. 20," Politico's Carla Marinucci and David Siders reported on Wednesday.
Steyer's campaign spurred headlines in October when his petition -- which declares "we need to impeach this dangerous president" -- surpassed the one million signature mark, a milestone Steyer himself initially believed was the ceiling of his impeachment drive.
In just three months, however, the number of petition signatures has tripled, transforming an effort dismissed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other high-ranking Democrats as quixotic and irrelevant into a political force that could become "the hottest trove of data in Democratic politics" heading into the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.
Steyer now has "at his fingertips a potentially powerful tool: an email list of millions of motivated activists who he can reach instantly for organizing and fundraising," Marinucci and Siders note.
In addition to prompting speculation about his own political ambitions, Steyer's impeachment campaign has played a part in revealing the tremendous and growing grassroots opposition to the president that has been reflected in both opinion polls and repudiations of Trump at the ballot box.
According to an Associated Press/NORC poll released this month, Trump -- who has labeled Steyer "wacky" and "totally unhinged" -- is the most unpopular first-year president in history. Another recent poll (pdf) -- conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News -- found that 41 percent of Americans want Congress to hold impeachment hearings for Trump. By contrast, only 36 percent of Americans say they would vote for Trump in 2020.
While some have warned that any focus on impeaching Trump -- an objective that, at least for now, runs up against insurmountable political obstacles -- is a distraction from more immediate and substantial issues, 58 Democrats nonetheless voted to move ahead with debate on Rep. Al Green's (D-Texas) articles of impeachment earlier this month.
"If some individual Democrats feel politically constrained from talking too directly about Trump's fitness to serve, that's understandable. But generally speaking, this moment is potentially too consequential for the party to retreat into squeamish message-tailoring," argued the Washington Post's Greg Sargent. "Tom Steyer's ads calling for impeachment have been derided as a big waste of money. But someone has to be staking out the outer boundaries of this conversation."
"Whatever is going to happen," Sargent concluded, "Democrats should rise to the occasion and treat it with the gravity and ambition it commands."