At a private fundraiser Tuesday night at a waterfront Hamptons estate, Hillary Clinton danced alongside Jimmy Buffett, Jon Bon Jovi and Paul McCartney, and joined in a singalong finale to “Hey Jude.”
“I stand between you and the apocalypse,” a confident Clinton declared to laughs, exhibiting a flash of self-awareness and humor to a crowd that included Calvin Klein and Harvey Weinstein and for whom the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is dire.
Trump has pointed to Clinton’s noticeably scant schedule of campaign events this summer to suggest she has been hiding from the public. But Clinton has been more than accessible to those who reside in some of the country’s most moneyed enclaves and are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to see her. In the last two weeks of August, Clinton raked in roughly $50 million at 22 fundraising events, averaging around $150,000 an hour, according to a New York Times tally.
And while Clinton has faced criticism for her failure to hold a news conference for months, she has fielded hundreds of questions from the ultrarich in places like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Beverly Hills and Silicon Valley.
“It’s the old adage, you go to where the money is,” said Jay S. Jacobs, a prominent New York Democrat.
Clinton raised about $143 million in August, the campaign’s best month yet. At a single event Tuesday in Sagaponack, New York, 10 people paid at least $250,000 each to meet her, raising $2.5 million.
If Trump appears to be waging his campaign in rallies and network interviews, Clinton’s second presidential bid seems to amount to a series of high-dollar fundraisers with public appearances added to the schedule when they can be fit in. Last week, for example, she diverged just once from her packed fundraising schedule to deliver a speech.
Robby Mook, the Clinton campaign manager, said 2.3 million people had contributed to the campaign, which has significantly increased the number of donors who give online in small increments.
The public has gotten used to seeing Clinton’s carefully choreographed appearances and her somewhat halting speeches and TV interviews over the course of the long — and sometimes seemingly joyless — campaign, but donors this summer have glimpsed an entirely different person.
It is clear from interviews with more than a dozen attendees of Clinton’s finance events this summer and a handful of pictures and videos of her at the closed-press gatherings that Clinton, often described as warm and personable in small settings, whoever the audience, can be especially relaxed, candid and even joyous in this company.
Clinton’s aides have gone to great lengths to project an image of her as down-to-earth and attuned to the challenges of what she likes to call “the struggling and the striving.” She began her campaign last year riding in a van to Iowa from New York and spent much of last summer hosting round-table discussions with a handful of what her campaign called “everyday Americans” in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Yet some of the closest relationships Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have are with their longstanding contributors. If she feels most at ease around millionaires, within the gilded bubble, it is in part because they are some of her most intimate friends.
“It’s like going to a wedding or a bar mitzvah: you catch up,” explained Mitchell Berger, a Democratic donor in Florida, about the familial nature of the events. Berger would know: He has been raising money for the Clintons since he held a fundraiser in his Fort Lauderdale office for Bill Clinton the day after he announced his candidacy in 1991.
Berger, who joined Hillary Clinton last month at a donor event in Miami Beach, said many of the individual conversations before and after she speaks at the gatherings are centered more on grandchildren than weighty policy matters.
But when she has had a give-and-take this summer about issues, Clinton, who has promised to “reshuffle the deck” in favor of the middle class and portrayed Trump as an out-of-touch billionaire, has almost exclusively been fielding the concerns of the wealthiest Americans.
To businessmen who complain to Clinton that President Barack Obama has been unfriendly to their interests, she says she would approach business leaders more like Bill Clinton did during his administration, which was widely considered amicable to the private sector.
When financiers complain about the regulations implemented by the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, Clinton reaffirms her support for strong Wall Street regulation, but adds that she is open to listening to anyone’s ideas and at times notes that she represented the banking industry as a senator.
The wealthy contributors who host Clinton often complain about her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and express concerns that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont pushed her to the left on trade and other issues. Clinton reminds them she has both opposed and supported trade deals in the past.
And, as she noted at an event last month on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Clinton points out that she worked cooperatively with Republicans when she served in the Senate and would do so as president.
“I’d say the major themes are small business, regulation and getting people back to work,” said Alan Patricof, a financier and longtime donor to Clinton.
The campaign’s finance team is led by Dennis Cheng, previously the chief fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation, and it employs a couple dozen staff members. Cheng, who attends the events with Clinton, offers donors a number of contribution options that provide them and their families varying levels of access to Clinton. John Morgan, a Florida lawyer and donor, described Cheng as “the master concierge.”
For a donation of $2,700, the children (under 16) of donors at an event last month at the Sag Harbor, New York, estate of the hedge fund magnate Adam Sender could ask Clinton a question. A family photo with Clinton cost $10,000, according to attendees.
And when Clinton attended a dinner at the Beverly Hills home of entertainment executive Haim Saban last month, the invitation was very clear. If attendees wanted to dine and receive a photo with Clinton they had to pay their own way: “Write not raise” $100,000.
Another advantage to choosing private fundraisers over town halls or other public events is that Clinton can bask in an affectionate embrace as hosts try to limit confrontational engagements.
Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a backer of Democrats and a friend of the Clintons’, made sure attendees did not grill Clinton at the $100,000-per-couple lamb dinner Forester de Rothschild hosted under a tent on the lawn of her oceanfront Martha’s Vineyard mansion.
“I said, ‘Let’s make it a nice night for her and show her our love,’” Forester de Rothschild said.
Cash-seeking candidates from both parties often rely on August to reach vacationing donors who open their wallets, and their palatial homes. In 2012, the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, brought in close to $4 million over a single weekend from events in the Hamptons. And Trump, while netting $64 million through online and direct-mail fundraising in July, also made the trek this summer to the eastern end of Long Island to raise cash.
But the Clintons have occupied a particular place in the social fabric of the enclave. Over the past several summers, they have spent the last two weeks of August in a rented 12,000-square-foot home with a heated pool in East Hampton and in a six-bedroom mansion with a private path to the beach in Sagaponack. This year, the former first couple stayed in the guesthouse of Steven Spielberg’s East Hampton compound built on 9 acres overlooking Georgica and Lily Ponds.
Trump’s candidacy has allowed Clinton to reach out to a new set of donors in the area who typically give to Republicans but dislike the current nominee. (Trump feels more at home at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, than in the Hamptons, where the exclusive Maidstone Club once denied him a full-time membership, according to The New York Post.)
“The Hamptons is full of powerful, wealthy people who are bored and go to constant social events to see who else got invited and to show your status,” said Ken Sunshine, a veteran Democratic activist and public relations executive with a home in Remsenburg, New York.
“This year,” he added, “going to a Clinton event is at the very top of the list.”