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Which Democratic presidential candidates are Duke employees donating to?

Duke employees are feelin’ the Bern and pulling out their wallets for “big, structural change,” according to FEC donation data.

Based on the Center for Responsive Politics’ data for contributors who listed “Duke University” as their employer, which would include both faculty and staff, Duke employees have given nearly $400,000 to political causes this election cycle, as of Feb. 26.

The candidate receiving the most money from Duke employees was Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who earned a total of $24,549. This includes donations of any amount. She received 11 contributions of more than $250. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is in second place for total donations with a total of $19,525 in contributions, and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg takes third place with $17,273.

Former Vice President Joe Biden received 21 faculty donations of more than $250, raising $17,214 total from his entire list of Duke supporters. 

Dale Purves, research professor in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, explained that he donated to both Biden and Warren. 

“I donated to Biden’s campaign several months ago when I thought he was best positioned among the Democratic candidates to beat [President Donald] Trump,” he wrote in an email. “Two months ago, I donated to Elizabeth Warren when she seemed in the best position to dump Trump at that point. Although I have not donated to Bloomberg, who doesn’t need the money, I put his bumper sticker on my car a week ago assuming he could do the job as Biden and Warren faded. Then he bombed the debate.” 

Purves added that he will also support Sanders if he wins the nomination. He clarified that he wished money could be taken out of politics, especially super PAC contributions.

There was a variety of support across all candidates. Several candidates had lower donation totals—for example, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., received $3,557 and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, got $1,888 in contributions. Neither candidate had supporters who gave more than $250. 

Norman Hill, a phytotron manager in the department of biology, donated to Gabbard. He explained that he supported her campaign because of how she focused on ending ceaseless war activity abroad. 

“I also like her policies on health care and the environment,” he wrote. “I appreciate her active military duty in the U.S. Army National Guard with two deployments to combat zones in the Middle East, and her seven years of experience representing Hawaii in the U.S. House of Representatives. Also important to me is that her candidacy is financed entirely by individuals without corporate or PAC money.”

Any amount of support can help a campaign. Sam Cohen, a Sanders supporter who serves as science communications specialist at the Nicholas School of the Environment, praised small donations.

“A campaign supported overwhelmingly by small donations from ordinary people is a healthier model in that it doesn't rely on special interests and is instead accountable to the millions who give money, or who volunteer their time and effort,” he wrote in an email.

Cohen chose to support Sanders for several reasons. He expressed that the Sanders campaign’s policy positions most clearly reflected his own: free, high-quality healthcare for all; free college; restoration of the right to vote for all incarcerated people; a more humble and peaceful foreign policy; and the Green New Deal.

“Most importantly, the Sanders campaign is truly organized around grassroots movement and mobilization,” he wrote. “Without this outside pressure and energy, I can't envision any of these needed changes actually happening. ‘Not Me, Us’ isn't just a slogan, it's the best, most plausible path forward for the country and the planet. For any electability-minded folks, Bernie also polls well against Trump and is popular among independents.”

Polling well was a concern for multiple faculty donors. David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science, explained how he evaluates the candidates before choosing who to donate to. 

“I look at all the candidates in terms of whether I like their policies and whether I think they have the chance to be successful,” he said. 

Rohde donated to both Booker and Buttigieg. He said that he was first inclined to donate to Booker because at that time, Booker was the candidate who came closest to meeting his combination of positive policies and potential. He noted that a candidate’s potential of being successful is especially important this year for the Democrats to win.

“When Booker dropped out, I decided to support Buttigieg for the same reasons,” he said.

Harold Erickson, James B. Duke professor of cell biology, added that he also liked Buttigieg “from the beginning.” 

“[He is] very intelligent and educated, able to speak simply and with compelling insight on all important issues,” Erickson wrote in an email. “His military background and left of left-middle positions should appeal to a broad base. Biden was a possibility but he appears to have lost his edge. ‘Medicare for all who want it’ is so much better than the impossible ‘medicare for all.’”

Owen Astrachan, professor of the practice of computer science, supported Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., in 2019 before she dropped out of the race in December. She raised $12,364 total from Duke faculty. Astrachan explained that although his family gave to more than one candidate, he supported Harris because of “her policies and track record as a senator.” 

“I think it is important for those running to have the backing of those who can provide said backing, to make those donations… and candidates need the support of their constituency. For the democratic candidates, to continue to debate, to continue to run, they need money,” he said.

So far in 2020, 98% of political donations from Duke faculty have gone to candidates affiliated with the Democratic Party, according to Open Secrets. This is similar to recent previous years and in line with the general trend over time of donations greatly favoring Democrats. In 2012, 74% of donations under “Duke University” went to Democratic candidates and the remaining 26% to Republicans. Since 2013, over 90% have gone to Democrats.

“As for how this reflects on the University? That’s a matter of evaluating how people are going to react to the information, and I have no idea whether people are going to be interested,” Rohde said. “Some people might be curious to who faculty donate to, and are not, I think, going to be surprised by the results that are revealed.”


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