This is the first in a series of articles about Jews and the 2020 presidential election.
Senator Bernie Sanders holds the record for the most successful Jewish presidential campaign in American history. He has relatives who died in the Holocaust. He’s speaking more about his Jewish identity. He once played a rabbi in a movie, and he barely even had to act.
He is not, however, the presidential candidate who is getting the most Jews to open their wallets and donate to his campaign. Nor, for that matter, is former Vice President Joe Biden – once the right-hand man of a president still beloved by most Jewish liberals. One of the senators from states with big Jewish populations, like California, New York or New Jersey? Nope.
Actually, the candidate scooping up the most money from Jews, and by quite a large margin, is the devoutly Christian 37-year-old mayor of a mid-size Indiana city with a Jewish population of 1,800 — who’s not afraid to criticize Israel.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg is winning the Jewish primary, according to a Forward analysis of hundreds of thousands of campaign contributions over the past six months. This, despite being the only major Democratic candidate who is open to cuts to American aid to Israel.
Like Obama, Buttigieg has many of the characteristics of a nice Jewish boy, said University of Florida political science professor Kenneth D. Wald: “He’s a guy who created his own life, did very well through education, has apparently got a good family, and speaks in a more sophisticated way than I think we’re used to hearing, even from the other Democratic nominees.”
Buttigieg’s performance in the Jewish community was even better than among the general population — and he’s done well in general, too, with fundraising hauls surpassing almost all his opponents.
Donations directly to candidates are perhaps more important in this primary cycle than ever before because the field is so large. An edge in donations allows a candidate to qualify for debates, keep paying their employees, buy more plane tickets (and Buttigieg has bought the most), show would-be voters and endorsers that the momentum is on their side – and hopefully, if they win the nomination, provide enough of a cushion to start beating back President Trump and his massive financial advantage.
That’s why Jews can play a key role in the primaries, even though the Jewish populations in Iowa and New Hampshire are small. It’s well known in political circles that Jews vote at a higher rate than the general population. But if Jews in general are “supervoters,” Wald said, they’re also “superdonors.”
Indeed, the numbers bear that out. Jews are around 2% of the American population, but during the first six months of 2019, they accounted for 5.5% of Democratic donors – and gave more than 7% of the money.
This, of course, begs the question: How do you identify whether a donor is Jewish? You can read about our methodology here.
‘Energy, passion, fresh approach to leadership’
Buttigieg raised $1.37 million in the last two quarters from donors the Forward identified as Jews – Biden, who was likely harmed in this study by being the last major figure to declare his candidacy, was the only other candidate to clear the seven-figure mark, at $1.13 million.
“He spoke about a lot of issues that I believe in,” said one Jewish Buttigieg donor, an attorney in her twenties who asked not to be named because her law firm deals in political matters. “Particularly values – faith, freedom, security….I started to investigate more, and I decided that I really liked him.”
A lot of other people clearly like him too. Buttigieg’s cash spread came from 1,394 individual Jewish donors, far ahead of Biden and Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren (the mayor clearly raised far more from Jewish sources than Sanders, but whether the Vermont independent technically had more Jewish donors is tougher to answer - see the methodology article for details).
Buttigieg was also above average in terms of the share of his donations coming from Jewish sources – though other major candidates with longer pro-Israel resumes, like Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, performed even better (though on the other hand, with struggling campaigns like theirs, support from a medium-size number of Jewish donors can have an outsize impact).
Buttigieg couldn’t have found many of those donors at home in South Bend, because its Jewish population is so small. So he’s compensated for that by making connections among major Jewish politicos, a process that started with his failed candidacy for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 2017. It was then that he met Steve Grossman, the former DNC chair and president of AIPAC, who was his first major endorser for president.
“I think there’s a crisis of leadership, and Pete Buttigieg brings some unique qualities to this moment in American history,” said Grossman, now CEO of a not-for-profit called the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. “If a candidate like Pete Buttigieg, not only because of his age, but because of his energy, passion, and fresh approach to leadership - if he can get the nomination, and he can inspire even a small fraction of [Millennials] to register and to vote, this election will not be close.”
Does Israel even matter?
Buttigieg has also made connections with Jewish organizations: He’s traveled to Israel with a contingent of U.S. mayors organized by the American Jewish Committee, and later appeared on their podcast.
Buttigieg has said many things that Israel hawks would agree with – praising the country’s counterterrorism policies and saying that current Palestinian leaders aren’t “the right kind of partners” for peace.
But he hasn’t been afraid to condemn Israeli government policies, telling The New York Times that “Israel’s human rights record is problematic and moving in the wrong direction.”
And his promise to cut aid to Israel if the Jewish state annexes part of the West Bank is farther than even Sanders is willing to go.
None of this seems to have affected Buttigieg’s supporters one way or another.
Surveys have shown for years that Jewish voters’ priorities mirror that of the general population – and Israel is often the subject of lowest importance.
Indeed, most of the Jewish donors contacted by the Forward, regardless of who they supported, didn’t list Israel when asked which issues were most important to them. “I have a pretty good feeling that she’s pro-Israel,” Harris donor Burt Minkoff said of the senator, “but it’s just not my priority in terms of how I vote.”
Grossman, the former DNC chair, said that in a campaign’s early stages, policies take a back seat to personal factors. “First they get to know you, then they decide whether they like you or not, then they decide whether to vote for you or not,” he said.
“If you ask people in the Jewish community who donated to Pete, ‘Did you do it because of Israel, or anti-Semitism or healthcare or the threat to Jewish communities nationwide,’ people say ‘No, not really,’” he said. “At this point, in July of 2019, more than a year before the election, it’s more of an overarching sense of Pete Buttigieg as someone who inspires them to want to be with him.”
Wald, the author of “The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism,” had another explanation, citing Buttigieg’s history-making status as the first openly gay major presidential candidate. “I think Buttigieg can make you feel progressive without signing on to the policies that other self-described progressives are embracing,” he said.
Aaron Keyak, the former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, helped broker a meeting between Buttigieg and Jewish communal leaders in May. He said Jewish Democrats’ top concern, like their Gentile peers, is finding a candidate who can defeat Trump.
“I do believe that some of the more far-left candidates are discouraging to some Jewish voters, and Mayor Pete is certainly not one of those,” said Keyak, now a partner at the public relations firm Bluelight Strategies. “But if I were to speculate, the #1 reason why he did so well among Jewish donors is for the same reason that he gathered broad popularity among Democrats in the past few months: The general quality of him as a candidate for president of the United States.”
Indeed, Buttigieg is leading the field when it comes to contributions from all American donors who gave $200+, with $16 million in that category alone out of $32 million total. Only Sanders has raised more overall, with three-quarters of his $36 million made up of small-dollar donations that have yet to be individually reported.
Six months to go
Within the Jewish community, Buttigieg seems to be particularly popular among “max donors” – those who are able to give the legal maximum of $2,800 directly to a candidate (those with more money to spend can give unlimited, sometimes un-traceable donations to so-called “Super PACs,” which operate independently from candidates). Buttigieg has raised more than $400,000 from Jewish max donors alone, with room to grow from hundreds more who have “only” given $1,000-$2,000.
“Money guarantees nothing,” Grossman said. “What he needs to do is figure out how to build relationships with voters of color in this country…and he recognizes that.”
Even so, Buttigieg’s financial advantage certainly doesn’t hurt – and the connections he has made with high-dollar Jewish donors along the way could also help inspire them to donate to a pro-Buttigieg Super PAC.
Super PACs can augment a campaign’s actions by, say, “independently” paying for negative TV ads against opponents. Buttigieg, Harris and Klobuchar are the three major candidates who have not made anti-Super PAC pledges, according to a Vox analysis last month. And according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, 14 of the 20 most generous donors to Democratic Super PACs in the 2018 campaign cycle were Jewish.
Super PACs haven’t yet ramped up their activities this cycle, and are unlikely to do so until the Iowa caucuses draw much nearer – but when they do, any PAC backing that candidates receive from the “most mega” of the Jewish megadonors would likely give them an advantage over their more principled opponents.
Eventually, though, a Democratic nominee will emerge, and will need a serious cash infusion to begin the task of taking on Trump. The donors interviewed by the Forward said that they would most likely be willing to back whoever emerges victorious.
“Trump is the most disgusting – how can I say this – he’s the most despicable person ever to be elected to any high office,” said Michael Buxbaum, a New York City-based attorney who donated the $2,800 maximum to Booker. “Cory Booker is one of the Democrats who is in a terrific position to defeat Donald Trump, [but] I know of very few Democrats who are not in such a position.”
Correction, August 5: A previous version of this article stated that Bernie Sanders is the descendant of Holocaust survivors. In fact, his father immigrated to the United States before the Holocaust began, though several of his father’s family members did perish during the Shoah.
Benjamin Gladstone contributed research and reporting.