Richard Vague, a wealthy Philadelphia tech venture capitalist, has spent a year studying voters in six swing states to determine what the 2020 Democratic nominee for president needs to know about America’s middle class.
Along the way, Vague began considering whether he ought to be that candidate himself.
A Texas-bred marketing expert who came to Philadelphia after making millions in banking and credit cards in Delaware, and then a turn in the energy sector, Vague describes himself as “despondent” after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016.
Deconstructing the defeat, Vague decided that Trump had developed and delivered a concise message for middle-class voters, as did U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who lost a hard-fought battle for the Democratic nomination. Clinton?
“I’m not sure I could tell you what Hillary was for in a concise way,” Vague said this week in the conference room of his firm, Gabriel Investments, with a sweeping 25th floor view of City Hall. “And I think that was a weakness strategically.”
Adding to Vague’s concern, state and national Democratic leaders didn’t seem to be immediately developing a “policy response” to prevent a repeat.
“When I saw there really wasn’t an effort in that regard, that’s when I thought, maybe I’ll do something,” he said.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell put Vague in touch with a Washington-based political consulting firm, Cornerstone Government Affairs, with ties to the early presidential primary state of Iowa. Vague and the firm developed a profile of voters he wanted to talk to: people making between $40,000 and $80,000 per year who had voted in the last two presidential elections.
Then Vague set off to meet with them, holding 22 focus groups in Iowa, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. He has four more scheduled for the first half of 2019. The groups have been split equally between Democrats and Republicans. In Iowa, he added registered independents because they outnumber both.
The questions were simple but serious. How is the job market for you? What are your prospects for advancement in the next five to 10 years? What is the state of your health insurance?
The answers were grim and shocking. In each state, no matter their political leanings, two-thirds of the people said they could not afford to miss even a single paycheck; most said they didn’t expect their careers to improve; and almost all were worried about increases in premiums and deductibles for employer-provided health insurance.
“I was surprised,” said Vague, who found health insurance to be the primary driver of economic anxiety. “But keep in mind, I was not asking them about candidates, and I was not asking them about policies. I was asking about their lives.”
Along the way, Vague’s thinking shifted. Rather than provide his research to a Democratic candidate for president, could he run? He grew up as a Republican and stayed with the party early in his career, but had been registered as an independent for more than a decade. Five days before the end of 2017, Vague changed his Philadelphia voter registration to Democratic.
“I think I had been a Democrat in practice for quite some time,” he said. “But I needed to technically make it official.”
Rendell said he sees a “lane for a moderate Democrat who is going to tell the truth to people” in a crowded 2020 primary field if former Vice President Joe Biden does not enter the race. He calls Vague a “bright guy” doing all the right things.
“He’s got the money to build the infrastructure for a campaign team,” Rendell said. “He’s smart as a whip. Doesn’t take himself too seriously. Self-effacing but absolutely brilliant.”
Vague knew Biden as his senator while living in Delaware. Biden’s entering the race “would be impactful” on whether Vague became a candidate, he said. No other potential Democratic candidate has that kind of sway over Vague’s thinking.
Vague’s deep pockets were filled by work in the credit card industry and Energy Plus, an electricity and natural gas company he co-founded and then sold in 2011 for $190 million. He has turned his marketing savvy toward the Penn Medicine board, where he serves and speaks expansively about the hospital system’s research.
Vague has been active on both sides of the aisle for years, giving donations to Republicans and Democrats. At times, he has hedged his bets in the same race. In 2016, he gave money to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican seeking a second term, and to his unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Katie McGinty.
“I am sure there are folks who will have issues with that,” Vague said. “But I think one of the things it does is reinforce the idea that, as a candidate and as a president, I can work across the aisle and work broadly, which is what I think it’s going to take.”
Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia lawyer active in Democratic presidential campaign fund-raising, said Vague is a “pretty thoughtful guy” who has developed “friends on both sides” who have similar ideas. The two paired up in 2013 to raise money for Toomey.
“Do I think its doable?” Kessler said of Vague’s potential candidacy. “For people who have been doing it for a long time as a profession, and know what it’s like to be involved in a presidential campaign, it would have to be a complete long shot. But you know what? That’s what people said about the guy in the White House now."
Vague plans to release a series of policy proposals in the spring, based on what he learned from speaking with voters.
One pitch: Lower the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 55 so older workers with more health issues can opt out of their employers' insurance plans, reducing costs as younger, healthier employees remain on the plans.
Another: Vague estimates that America has 55 million homes, plus five to 10 million small businesses with buildings, but just two million structures with solar panels. Creating a government-insured lending program could increase that to five or 10 million, creating manufacturing and installation jobs while helping the environment.
Like many would-be candidates, Vague has a book on the horizon. But this is no inspirational tale with him as the lead character in a long march to the White House.
The title is A Brief History of Economic Doom. Delivered to the publisher in December and set for release in the middle of the year — right around the time when Vague says he will decide on whether to be a candidate — the book is a data-driven examination of 43 financial crises in the world’s six largest countries over the last two centuries.
Vague predicts an economic slowdown in the U.S. coinciding with the 2020 presidential race, followed by a much more serious economic crisis in Asia, driven by new and exploding private debt.
“I think it will be a factor,” Vague said of the impact on the campaign, “especially if Trump’s claim is he knows what to do economically in a slowdown.”
For now, Vague’s efforts are more academic than political. He has compiled significant data. But he has almost zero social media presence, a key platform would-be candidates use to introduce themselves and to talk more broadly and directly with voters.
Vague said he has not kept track of how much his focus-group effort has cost. He would start as a self-funding candidate if he enters the race — with no preset amount of his own money to spend — but would shift to public fund-raising “sooner rather than later” to fund the effort and reach out to voters.
Little-known candidates have run for president fully aware the odds were stacked against them but eager to use the platform to help shift and shape the national discussion. Vague said that isn’t his intention.
“If I enter the race, it will be with the desire and intention to win,” he said.