Indian-Americans contribute more money to Tulsi Gabbard over Kamala Harris

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C.-- Much to the surprise of the purveyors of the fundraising data of the Democratic presidential candidates, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — the first Hindu-American U.S. Congresswoman, but of non-Indian ethnicity — who is hardly a blip in the polls — has raised three times more from the Indian-American community than U.S. Senator Kamala Devi Harris of California - of Indian and Jamaican parentage. 

Harris has consistently been one of the top five contenders in the race thus far, since her impressive roll-out launch in January before a crowd of over 20,000 in her hometown of Oakland that had even President Trump, with his penchant for crowd sizes, clearly exhibiting rally envy.

According to AAPI Data, based out of the University of California, Riverside, that publishes data and policy research on the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, in the first quarter that ended March 31, Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, had raised more than $237,000 from the Indian American community and Indian green card holders in the U.S.--who are also eligible to contribute to U.S. political campaigns--compared to Harris's paltry $76,300  from the community.

Harris's haul from the Indian community, was even less than U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had received more than $131,000 from the Indian American and Indian community that constitutes a population of 370,000 in his state. Harris's home state of California where she was born and raised and where she went on to be elected District Attorney of San Francisco, then Attorney General and in 2016, a U.S. Senator, boasts of an Indian population of over 712,000.

But in overall fund-raising, Gabbard and Booker, have been no match for Harris, who was number two in terms of fundraising in the first quarter, pulling down more than any other first-time presidential candidate in the field with $12 million. She was second only to U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who pulled down $18 million.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke came in third with $9.3 million, followed by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who capitalized on a flurry of publicity, including a much-watched CNN town hall, raised $7 million.

Gabbard and Booker since launching their campaigns in January had raised $1.95 million and $5 million respectively.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of political science and associate dean of the School of Public Policy at UC Riverside, who is the founder and director of AAPI Data, told India Abroad that he was surprised that Gabbard had significantly out-raised Harris--who was earlier this month endorsed by the Indian American Impact Fund--but acknowledged that it was so early in the game and that if Gabbard fails to get any traction in the polls in the next few months and falls by the wayside, it's possible that Harris, if she continues to make a strong showing, may garner more Indian American and Indian donations.

"Whenever, you look at data in hindsight, one can explain why that took place," he said, but acknowledged, "going into it, especially given the kind of national name recognition and viability that Kamala Harris had, I expected her to do better."

But overall, Ramakrishnan noted how well Harris was faring "in the money game," acknowledging that what she has raised was several millions above what even Gabbard and Booker combined had been able to garner, and predicted that "even among Indians, she probably will do much better moving forward, and this was just for the first quarter that her showing was not as strong, at least as much as I expected and others expected as well," especially since Gabbard, was bringing up the rear in the polls of the nearly 20 candidates, with former Vice President Joe Biden being the latest presidential aspirant to throw his hat into the ring on April 25.

"I think this does point to...the way I would put it, is that there are missed opportunities for the Harris campaign in that there is more that they can do to do outreach. I am not seeing any group like for example South Asian for Obama (SAFO) as there were when Obama ran in 2008."

Ramakrishnan said, "I don't think there are any of those kinds of organizations that have cropped up,' to support Harris.

Aruna Miller, the executive director of the Indian American Impact Fund, told India Abroad that the rationale for the early endorsement of Harris on April 14, was because, “When there is a large pool of candidates like this, early support, early money, and yes, an early endorsement, is central to minority candidates, who have been historically marginalized, like women of color.”

Ramakrishnan acknowledged that Gabbard's overwhelming support among Indian Americans and Indians vis-a-vis Harris, was also likely "generational," with the older generation in the community, elated by the fact that Gabbard is the first Hindu American running for President, enthusiastically supporting her from the get go.

Late last year, when there were rumors that Gabbard was mulling a presidential run, her close friend and colleague Rep. Ro Khanna told India Abroad, “She is definitely running and she has tremendous support in the Indian American community and enthusiasm.”

Khanna at the time, predicted that Gabbard, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and at the time the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus of India and Indian Americans would “probably raise $10 million from that community within a month of announcing.”

But the Indian American Generation X'ers and the millennials have been unrelenting in castigating her, and the likes of Subodh Chandra, longtime Democratic and civil rights activist, who is one of the staunchest supporters of Harris, after Gabbard disclosed to Van Jones on CNN’s The Van Jones Show that she had decided to run for the presidency, bemoaned “her hard-right anti-Muslim zealotry and association with murderous Hindu extremists who have blood on their hands is disturbing,” and challenged Gabbard’s defenders to “research it.”

“And I’m a Hindu. Something is way off…” Chandra said, and added, “I was proud of her status as the first Hindu U.S. Rep. But no more after seeing her associations and statements.”

He also predicted in Facebook posts, “She will never be president. “But she will cause trouble. And the Russians will help her do just that.”

Ramakrishnan said, "Absolutely, there is generational issues, there is Hindu nationalism and Indian politics, playing a significant role here," in terms of support Indian American and Indian support for Gabbard over Harris.

Gabbard, has a huge grassroots following among right-leaning Hindu Americans, having closely aligned with them right from the beginning of her Congressional career thanks to Sunil Khemaney, her liaison to the Indian American community.

Gabbard is also a favorite of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, having visited with him, both when he first came to the U.S. as Prime Minister, and then during her trip to New Delhi in December 2014.

Right off the blocks, when she announced the launch of her presidential bid in January, her campaign sent out an e-mail touting her Hindu credentials.

It said, “Tulsi has been a Hindu American leader in the truest sense. From being the first ever member of the US Congress to take the oath on the Bhagavad Gita to fiercely advocating for not only her constituents, but for issues impacting the well-being of Hindus here at home and around the world.”

“Tulsi’s approach to lawmaking and diplomacy has been one guided by dharma and steeped in the spirit of karma yoga,” the campaign e-mail said, and also noted her strong support on behalf of Hindu Americans, led by organizations like the Hindu American Foundation against inaccurate and disrespectful presentations of Hindu teachings and traditions in the media and public school textbooks.

“She has unapologetically advocated for civil and human rights – speaking up not only for Hindu minorities, but all people who are suffering,” it said.

Ramakrishnan however argued that be that as it may, Harris "stands to do quite well, unless she doesn't screw up in any major way. She is favored to do well in South Carolina because of the large black voter population, she is also going to do well in California because she represents California, and so, I believe many Indian donors will come to support Harris down the road."

"It is still very early in the campaign, but you are not seeing the kind of popular grassroots up-swells, like the fan clubs for Beta O'Rourke or Mayor Pete Buttigieg--you are not seeing that kind of more organic, seemingly spontaneous fan club for Harris yet."

Ramakrishnan said, "Actually, to me, the biggest shocker was Cory Booker because he has almost fallen off the radar nationally--nobody talks about him. He's done quite well among Asian donors and decently well among Indian donors too," obviously helped by the large Indian constituency in New Jersey.

"This is what I would have thought--yes, this is absolutely true. (But) Again, once you look at the data it makes sense, but going into it before this analysis was done, before they reported the results, I think it would have been anyone's guess who would have been the top money winner among Indians and especially with all of that Silicon Valley money. I mean, you recall, Ro Khanna, did really well with Silicon Valley money."

But Ramakrishnan opined that "maybe she(Harris) has decided that it is not important for her to try to appeal to the Indian community because she is pulling a lot of money anyway and she needs to lock up support in states where Indian Americans are not a very big chunk of the voting population. So, maybe, that's part of her calculation. But, it is very interesting the kinds of results that we've seen."

Meanwhile, he took issue with the contention in some quarters that in the big picture, the hype by some Indian American leaders about the power of Indian American to bring in a significant amount of fund-raising dollars, was just that--hyperbole.

Ramakrishnan noted that "given that Indians are getting more and more politically active, more and more people are running for office, what we've seen by my students who analyze the data, one thing you'll notice is that among all the Asian groups, Indians were the biggest donors."

"So, there is something to be said of Indian donations getting stronger and stronger,' he said, and pointed out that "there are more Chinese than Indians in the U.S. but Indians have given more in this cycle and I think they've been catching up with the Chinese donor population over time and this year they'll probably beat Chinese donations when it comes to presidential politics."

Ramakrishnan said there is no denying that the amount of money the Indians had donated at this early stage, particularly when compared to other Asian groups was quite impressive, “but I think you are going to see much more donation activity, not just for president, but Congressional offices as well.”

“But I think it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Indian community—the longer we stay in the U.S., the older we get, the more and more Indian immigrants becoming American citizens, you are going to see a lot more donations.”

While acknowledging that “it might take decades before it gets to the level of the Jewish American community in terms of their campaign contributions, it’s well on its way.”

Ramakrishnan also agreed that it’s a no-brainer that if more Indian Americans got elected to the U.S. Congress, these donations would increase exponentially. “Absolutely, and a bigger part of the reason is that you are having more Indians running for office and that inspires more and more donations.”

Longtime Democratic fund-raiser, Ramesh Kapur, a strong supporter of Harris, has promised to raise over $10 million from the Indian American community for Harris, and has scheduled a fund-raiser at his home in Winchester, Massachusetts, later in May.

Ramakrishnan said that "this early money is there for people who want to show their support for particular candidates. It's also a test of strength, especially candidates who might not be getting as much media attention… and gives them a shot. Also, you have a lot of these candidates, they have to get a certain number of donors to qualify for the debates.'

"So, there's all of that going on, but I think the field will be quite different a year from now certainly, once we've gone through California and some of the Super Tuesday states," he said, and predicted, "Then we'll see a very different kind of donation pattern."

Ramakrishnan believes that Harris's "strategy is very similar to an Obama strategy, except it's a much more crowded field now than it was when Obama ran. But she also has a very bid advantage of California (primary)moving up from May to March. I think they did that in 2008 as well but Obama did not have that kind of advantage that Harris has in California."

He lauded his student Sono Shah, a PhD candidate at UC Riverside and a researcher with AAPIData and the Center for Social Innovation for all of the compiling and analysis, which was part of his doctoral dissertation.”

Ramakrishnan said that earlier Shah had been working “on public opinion data, but now he’s working on campaign contributions and that’s his dissertation.’

The key take-aways of the analysis was that 44 percent of Indian American contributions went to Gabbard and 60 percent of Gabbard’s Asian American contributions came from Indian American contributors.

Also, more than one-third of the money Booker’s campaign raised from Asian American donors, came from Indian Americans.

But it said, “Unlike Gabbard or Booker, who appear to rely heavily on a single ethnic group, both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, have raised money from a more diverse set of Asian American donors.”

In terms of geographic differences, Shah’s analysis found that interestingly, while both Booker and Gabbard have raised significant amounts of money from Indian American donors, they appear to be doing so from largely different areas.

For example, sub-setting Indian American contributions to Gabbard’s campaign by donor state, about 47 percent of contributions come from California. However, when doing the same for Booker’s campaign, just 21 percent of Indian American contributions come from California. Instead, 41 percent of Indian American contributions to Booker came from his own state of New Jersey.

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