On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late March, just after she had spoken from the pulpit at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Sen. Kamala Harris made her way to a 6,500-square-foot mansion in a decidedly upscale neighborhood called Peachtree Battle.
As a few dozen of the city’s power elite ate salmon and salad, Harris ducked into the library. There, she gripped and grinned for photos with a line of donors, pausing the session briefly to speak French with a 4-year-old girl who is learning the language. And when the picture parade was done, Harris, a California Democrat who is running for president, headed to the living room for a question-and-answer round with the guests and their host, Laura Turner Seydel, a daughter of billionaire Ted Turner.
By the time Harris left town — after another fundraiser at a private club called The Gathering Spot and a rally at Morehouse College — she had banked more than $200,000, according to a campaign official.
A month later, at the home of Dr. Susan Stephens, a spinal surgeon, in a suburb east of Cleveland, Harris fielded questions about impeachment and restoring voting rights to ex-cons, as doctors, lawyers, business owners and local politicians sipped water and nibbled on tenderloin sliders. At Stephens’ house, there was no minimum donation required.
The common thread at the two fundraising events, both of which were held in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods: Most of the donors were people of color.
“I did not know we had this kind of nonwhite wealth in Ohio,” said state Rep. Tavia Galonski, a black woman who represents an Akron-based district that is almost entirely white, in a text message. “My understanding is this group is firmly behind the Harris ticket and they’ve got the money to back it up.”
In the early months of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Harris has tapped into the wealth of minority communities in pockets across the country, from her home in the San Francisco Bay area to Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, South Florida and the Washington suburbs, and she has taken in more than twice the amount of her closest competitor from big-dollar contributors who live in neighborhoods in which minorities make up a majority of the population, according to an NBC News analysis.
Harris’s supporters say she has tried to change a pattern in which donors of color don’t get as much attention from politicians as white contributors.
“That is indicative of the efforts that Harris has put into making donors from the minority community feel welcome and supported and aware of the fact that there are donors in the black community that generally haven’t been touched in the way that this campaign has,” said Susan Pease Langford, a lawyer who co-hosted the Atlanta fundraiser. Langford is the mother-in-law of former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and grandmother of Maria Reed, the 4-year-old who spoke French with Harris.
Tad Devine, a top strategist for several past Democratic presidential campaigns, said Harris’ early work to identify donors in communities of color has implications for her ability to cultivate a voting base.
“That’s an indication that she has real advantage, without a doubt, and can build on that politically, not just financially,” he said.
By The Numbers
NBC’s analysis used data from the Census Bureau’s 2013-17 survey to build estimates of the racial makeup of ZIP codes. This data was cross-referenced with Federal Election Commission quarterly filings in April for the committees of the major Democratic candidates. (More on the methodology at the end of this article.)
Harris pulled in at least $1 million from ZIP codes where most residents are not white, about two-and-a-half times the total of former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who was second to Harris, raising more than $408,000 from the same set of neighborhoods, the analysis showed. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was third, about $1,400 behind O’Rourke, and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., was fourth, with at least $391,000.
None of the other candidates broke the $250,000 mark.
Harris and Booker are the only two black candidates in the race; former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who is Hispanic, brought in at least $140,000 from ZIP codes in which minorities make up a majority of residents.
Just outside Washington, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which takes in some of the most affluent African American suburbs in the country, Harris has received contributions totaling more than $26,000 from 17 majority-black ZIP codes. That includes at least $11,000 from 20721, where the median household income tops $120,000 a year and the population is 85 percent black, according to the Census Bureau. No other candidate topped $1,800 for those 17 ZIP codes combined.
A Matter of Strategy
The patterns are not an accident. They reflect Harris’ strategy.
“Our hope is to engage communities of supporters who too often don’t get the kind of engagement and outreach they deserve, and we have new donors inspired by Kamala who have never been involved in the political process before,” Angelique Cannon, the national finance director for Harris’ campaign, told NBC News.
“We’re proud that we have engaged supporters in diverse communities like Atlanta, Cleveland and Houston, among others — and we’re having success because people believe in Kamala’s vision, they know she is the best candidate to beat Trump, and they are inspired to be a part of her historic campaign,” Cannon said.
Harris’s fundraising from donors of color is still an emerging narrative, and it’s one that the contributors often describe as an attractive feature of her candidacy, an element of her emphasis on bringing people together across racial, ethnic, religious, economic and other lines.
In the Cleveland suburbs, the crowd was a mix of black, Asian American and white, reflecting in part Harris’ heritage as the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother. And there were a lot of women.
“She articulated the problems that affect and concern all Americans,” said Stephens, who is black. “Women aren’t looking at this from a race perspective. We’re looking at it as who can get Trump the hell out of office and all the people with him. … It’s an honesty issue. It’s a character issue.”
The ability to tap into unique networks of money can provide an edge for a candidate when all the campaigns are beating the bushes for cash, said Kelly Dietrich, a veteran Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee.
“Every known donor out there is getting hammered,” he said.
And yet, in some cases, Harris is simply winning over well-known sources of fundraising help.
The driving force behind Harris’ two events in Atlanta was Eugene Duffy, the longtime right hand of the late Mayor Maynard Jackson and a close ally of former San Francisco Mayor and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. They included a who’s-who of Atlanta’s black financial and political elite.
Duffy was an early backer and national finance committee member for Barack Obama in 2008, and his support for Harris means that Vice President Joe Biden didn’t inherit it. While Biden is leading the Democratic field in overall polling and among the African American electorate, he and Harris may be destined for a tough fight for black voters in delegate-rich Deep South states like Georgia and in major cities in the industrial Midwest.
Can She Turn Money Into Votes?
If Harris plays her politics right, there ultimately will be a connection between the donors she meets privately and voters.
Her whirlwind Sunday tour of Atlanta last month gave a hint of the two-step dance: public appearances at Ebenezer and Morehouse mixed with fundraisers put together by Duffy, who took the reins of Jackson’s political machine and has helped elect countless officials.
“With this money machine comes on-the-ground support,” said Goldie Taylor, a veteran Atlanta political operative and author. “This machine has the ability to turn out in all of metro Atlanta’s eight counties. If you can win this machine, you can win the Georgia Democratic primary.”
That appears to be the way Harris is thinking about building parts of her organization across the country.
“Our ongoing efforts will focus on empowering these supporters and engaging their networks, which will help us grow our supporter base, activate new avenues into key communities, and mobilize this support into votes in the primary,” Cannon said.
NBC’s analysis used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013-17 survey to build estimates of the racial makeup of ZIP codes. This data was cross-referenced with April Federal Election Commission quarterly filings for the major Democratic candidates. From the FEC filings, the total contributed from that ZIP code to each candidate could be calculated.
ZIP codes with populations that were more than half and potentially more than half white, when accounting for the margin of error, were not included. ZIP codes where the Census provided margin of error for demographic information was 10% or higher were deemed statistically unreliable and were not included. However, those ZIP codes also showed a similar edge for Harris.
For example, Prince George’s County neighborhoods mentioned in the article were not included in the analysis because Census data for the white population was not statistically reliable. The NBC analysis included only contributors who gave more than $200 to one or more candidates — the threshold at which campaigns must report donors’ names, addresses and contribution levels to the FEC.