“When Money Grows on Jewish Trees”, by Benjamin Schuman-Stoler, Moment Magazine, July/August 2008.
No matter how much they emphasize their differences from one another on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain share a common denominator: Jewish fundraisers. Penny Pritzker serves as Obama’s national finance chair, and Elliott Broidy is the Republican National Committee finance committee chairman.
Through early June, Pritzker helped bring in more than $265 million for the Obama campaign; the Democratic National Committee collected an additional $80 million. Broidy amassed over $165 million for the RNC, while McCain’s campaign brought in $96 million. These amounts are nothing to scoff at, and they highlight the influence of Jews in American presidential races.
It is no secret that Jews are politically active: Up to 80 percent of eligible Jewish voters turned out to vote in the 2004 presidential election, compared to 50 percent of the electorate as a whole. But it is in the realm of campaign finance that Jews—who comprise less than two percent of the population—play a disproportionately prominent role. “Jewish fundraising has become so central to campaigns,” says retired University of Arizona Professor of History Leonard Dinnerstein, “that nobody renounces Jews and expects to be reelected.”
Jews long ago recognized that political influence improved their chances of survival—be it by campaigning, voting or contributing financially, says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “The Jews learned from history to take advantage of the great opportunity America gives to participate in politics.”
Although wealthy Jews like August Belmont in the 19th century and Bernard Baruch in the 20th threw their substantial weight behind presidential candidates, the first example of a large-scale Jewish fundraising mobilization occurred around the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel, Dinnerstein says. The success of that campaign established the small minority as an important—and organized—fundraising network.
Presidential campaigns became the money-raising behemoths they are today after World War II, with the introduction of televised political advertising in the 1950s. This was followed by the 1971 Federal Elections Campaign Act, which created the Federal Election Commission (FEC), to monitor and limit the amount that single donors can contribute. Candidates then had to shift their focus from a few massive donations to a large number of smaller ones, says former FEC Commissioner Michael Toner. “After the FEC Act, the role of fundraisers changed to laying the groundwork for a funding infrastructure, for a network.”
In the 2008 election cycle, the Jewish “network” has helped raise more money than any other cycle in history. Broidy, who previously raised more than $800 million to buoy private investment in Israel, recently hosted a major fundraising dinner for McCain at $2,300 a plate, the maximum campaign donation allowed. Fundraising events such as these have helped the RNC move ahead of the DNC in available funds—and point to Broidy’s considerable fundraising prowess—even though Obama leads McCain in campaign fundraising.
Another influential Jew in McCain’s campaign is Donald R. Diamond, a longtime friend of the senator and benefactor of the Tucson, Arizona, Jewish community. Known at times as “The Donald,” Diamond is chairman of Diamond Ventures, Inc. and a co-chair of McCain’s national finance committee. Wayne Berman, also a Jewish co-chair, is managing director of the influential Ogilvy Government Relations and raised money for George W. Bush in 2004.
On the Democratic side is Pritzker, Chicago-based Hyatt Hotel billionaire heiress and the chairwoman of Classic Residence by Hyatt. Besides the fundraising of so-called bundlers (fundraisers who assemble large donors to contribute), the campaign has used the Internet to great effect. In fact, National Jewish Democratic Council executive director Ira Forman says that because Obama’s Internet fundraising success has come substantially from small donors, large donors—Jewish and not—have become “less important.”
Among the Jewish bundlers is Alan D. Solomont, a longtime Bill Clinton fundraiser, who is currently Obama’s northeast finance director. Solomont, head of Solomont Bailis Ventures, led a group that raised $35 million for John Kerry in 2004. Obama is also supported by George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management, LLC, and a well-known financier of liberal causes. Soros has bankrolled MoveOn.org and gave $18 million to support various Democratic groups opposing President Bush’s 2004 re-election.
Polls and voting studies show that the majority of Jews support the Democratic Party and its candidates. For example, the Solomon Project, a Democratic Jewish organization, concluded that 78 percent of Jews voted for Senator John Kerry in 2004.
It is a pattern that seems unlikely to change. According to a June 2008 CBS News poll, taken before Obama claimed the Democratic nomination, he led McCain 65 percent to 28 percent among Jewish registered voters. This lopsided support of a liberal candidate is reflected in the realm of fundraising.
Regardless of party affiliation, Jews are among the country’s most generous political supporters. Says Forman: “There is no doubt that part of what makes the Jewish community so good at fundraising is a certain philanthropic ethic.”