By Nov. 4, over $11 billion is projected to be spent on the US election, making it the most expensive election in the country’s history.
President Donald Trump and his campaign began raising money for re-election in the early days of his presidency, giving him a head-start in fundraising. But Joe Biden and his vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris have smashed fundraising records, exceeding Trump in the final months of the election.
Indian-Americans make up just over 1% of the US population—but they form a growing political force, which is a new position for the community. Their political and financial contribution to the current election, experts say, is unprecedented compared to previous ones.
“It’s often been said that at least in America, money ends up being the mother’s milk of politics,” said Sanjeev Joshipura, who leads the Indians for Biden campaign.
Joshipura said the Indian-American community is putting its financial muscle behind political campaigns to a greater degree than has ever been done in the past, and both the low and high-value donations in fundraisers and bundlers that he is witnessing are critical.
A study in 2019 looking at Democratic candidates for the presidential elections who were in the race then found that Indian-American donors gave the most overall in individual contributions to Democratic candidates compared to other Asian Americans. The data found that Indian contributions totalled over $540,000 (Rs4 crore), followed by Chinese contributions of more than $358,000, even though the Chinese-American population is larger in the US.
This election is different for Indian-Americans because of Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate whose mother immigrated to the US from India.
“Ten years ago, if you asked people, ‘When will an Indian-American become president?’ They might have said, ‘Who knows?’ The community couldn’t even dream of something like that,” said MR Rangaswami, founder of Indiaspora, a non-profit organisation that works with and studies the community. “But in 2020, Kamala Harris has a real shot at becoming vice president.”
During the primary season, Indian-Americans had already contributed more than $3 million to 2020 presidential campaigns—surpassing even the Hollywood industry’s coveted political contributions, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“When Hillary Clinton stood for office, a lot of money came into the election from Indians,” he said. “But this election, it has just taken off.”
During the Democratic primary, Rangaswami says that candidates across the board received substantial backing from Indians. Conservatively, he estimates, up to $5 million went to Harris, Cory Booker, Tulsi Gabbard—who is Hindu—and Biden from the community. “In general, it’s only increased even more dramatically.”
In September, Indian-Americans raised a record high of $3.3 million for the Biden campaign in one night. And over the weekend, an event for Harris was estimated to have raised at least another $2 million to $3 million, said Rangaswami.
In total, Rangaswami believes that at least $16 million has been contributed by the Indian-American population to Democratic candidates’ campaigns.
“In the voter data study we conducted with AAPI, voters told us that 25% of them had given money to political candidates. These are usually big numbers, but even if it’s $10 and $50, it adds up,” he added.
After Harris was nominated, there was a huge spike in political donations from across different communities, with more than $48 million flooding into the campaign in just the first 48 hours.
The Biden campaign raised an average of $8.1 million a day online in the last three weeks of August following Harris’s nomination, according to The New York Times—which is a massive $2.5 million more than its previous biggest day.
“She’s excited people for sure,” Rangaswami said.
Political action committees (PACs) are organisations created with the purpose of raising campaign contributions from members and donating them to campaigns for or against candidates. They function differently from Super PACs—a relatively new type of committee – which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to advocate for or against candidates.
Recently, Indian-American PAC IMPACT, run by Pennsylvania-based Neil Makhija, raised $10 million for the Democratic campaign. That’s believed to be the highest amount ever raised by an Indian-American PAC in US history.
“Every election becomes more expensive, but with the unlimited corporate flow of money, the affiliated and unaffiliated PACs… It’s just been totally, totally out of control this year,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman of USINPAC, a bipartisan political action committee based in Washington DC.
In 2016, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns had outsourced the task of engaging the Indian community to outside groups, said Rishi Bhutada, director of Hindu American PAC, which has multiple overlapping members with the Hindu American Foundation. The PAC has raised a total of $45,000 for candidates during this election cycle.
“This time around, though, both parties have made it a core part of the campaigns to reach out to the Indian community. And there has been a corresponding response from the community,” Bhutada said.
Most of the money comes in the form of individual donations and Super PACs, Bhutada noted.
“There are PACs involved on both sides, organising events and fundraising, but generally, it’s the PACs that are aligned with one party or another that are more engaged on that front—or the Super PACs,” he added.
Given the structures for fundraising, an individual donor can donate up to $2,800 to an individual campaign, he said. But individual donors can also donate money to national parties and state-level parties.
“You can write one cheque of $100,000, disbursing an amount to the Biden campaign, the Democratic National Committee, the state Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, and the state Democratic Party in Florida.” In one cheque, money is sent out to several groups, and campaigns are able to raise much larger sums in this way.
On the other hand, political action committees face limitations. “They have to send the money they’ve raised to each individual group, and have limits that they can give to these groups as well,” Bhutada said. The amount a PAC is allowed to raise and spend is capped based on its type.
Hindu American PAC, for instance, is a traditional PAC that can raise money from donors. But it is limited to $5,000 per individual per year, Bhutada said. They can make contributions to campaigns, independent expenditures, and contributions to national and state parties, but several Federal Election Commission limits exist.
Super PACs, on the other hand, can raise unlimited amounts of money without any legal limit on the donation size. “That’s where a lot of the money in the election is—in super PACs. They’ll raise millions, spend it on a candidate, running TV ads for them, sending out mailers, newspaper ads, and so on.”
Among Super PACs listed on and with their ideologies published on OpenSecrets, most stated that they supported Biden and opposed Trump, an analysis of Super PAC records on the public database shows.
Ahead of the game
FEC data shows that Biden has raised at least 58% more than Trump overall.
“There is a groundswell of opposition to president Trump over his failure on multiple fronts, which has motivated millions of people to contribute to the Biden campaign,” said Democratic fundraiser Frank Islam. A large portion of the country is concerned that the current administration’s policies have made the country less secure and more vulnerable, he said, and most of these people are donating to the Biden campaign, in both large and small.
Islam said that many of Biden’s donations are, in fact, low-value. “Nearly 40% of the contributions ($368 million) were made by small donors, who gave less than $200. Trump received $268 million in small-donor contributions. The average Biden contribution is $43. The small-donor contributions are very important because these are money given by average voters who believe in the ideas advanced by the campaign,” Islam said. Biden has an extensive small-donor base, which is a good sign for the campaign, he added.
Ajay Bhutoria, who is on the national finance committee for the Biden campaign, said Indians’ contributions have come this year in spite of the pandemic.
“I’ve been working on the Finance Committee for Joe Biden raising money, and our community has been extremely generous in giving the funds needed to support this campaign, despite Covid-19,” he said.
There is no personal meet-and-greet this year, nor photo ops—but the community, and particularly younger Indian-Americans, have understood the importance of this election, Bhutaria stated. “They know that they are the margin of victory this time.”
Bhutoria said there’s been outreach to every Asian community, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese Americans. But Indians are “ahead of the game” in this election cycle in supporting the Biden-Harris ticket, even in terms of financial contributions, he said.
“On average, Indian-Americans give more in campaign donations than most Asian Americans,” said Islam, “But we don’t contribute as much as White and Black Americans do. We still have a long way to go—but the good news is, we are heading in the right direction.”
Money and votes
Overall, the Indian-American population is twice as rich as the rest of the country as a whole, and twice as likely to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, making them a critical constituency both parties have sought to attract.
But it’s important to see the community as more than just an ATM machine, said Deepa Sharma, communications co-chair for South Asians for Biden.
The community is known for its political fundraising. “We’ve been prolific in fundraising for many election cycles now, from Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were beloved by our community, to Barack Obama, who held fundraisers at Indian restaurants in Chicago.”
Sharma said that while Indian-Americans have routinely been tapped for fundraising, they are finally also being seen as an electoral powerhouse. “As someone who has been organising in electoral politics for over ten years, the fact that we’re important for our votes this time, and not just for our money, is something that is really meaningful to our community.”