Sheldon Adelson’s Long Game

The Forward editorializes this morning on Politico reporter Ken Vogel’s new book with the clunky title, Big Money: 2.5 Billion Dollars, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp—on the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, an insidery look at the post-Citizens United world of political mega-donors.

With several of the highly recognizable names—particularly casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—being Jewish, has their money bought them influence among Jewish voters? With regard to Adelson, the editorial contends, his early support of Newt Gingrich “didn’t really work. Gingrich lost the primary, and the protracted, intra-party fight weakened Mitt Romney in the general election.”

Every election cycle, we talk about the “Jewish vote” whatever that is. If it can be broadly characterized, it’s largely Democratic.

Vogel told the Forward, “Very little of the money given by Jewish donors is actually spent on influencing the Jewish vote. It’s spent on politics more generally. I don’t think anyone has any illusions that American Jews could be shifted en masse from the Democratic column to the Republican column.”

That’s a pretty narrow, immediate results-oriented look at the impact of the mega-donor phenomenon (a common tic of political reporters), particularly in the case of Adelson, whose spending is aimed not just at influencing the outcome of the election, but probably more crucially on influencing conversation about Israel.

Adelson can read a poll just as easily as anyone else. Or last year’s Pew Research Center survey on American Jewish attitudes. His money isn’t about 2016 or even 2020 or 2024, it’s about staving off the shifting views of American Jews about Israel, or at least constraining political dialogue about it.

Citizens United enabled Adelson to pour as much of his money as he wants into influencing elections, but that’s really a misnomer. He’s not influencing the outcome of elections, but enforcing how candidates speak.

Case in point (a story we know thanks to Vogel’s reporting, by the way): earlier this year Adelson chastized Chris Christie for using the term “occupied territories,” and extracted an apology from a man who hopes to be president of the United States. He can only do that because he has money. Will it influence the outcome of the election? Probably not. But it will dictate how candidates speak.

Adelson’s money isn’t just about the world of Super PACs. As Haaretz reported yesterday, Adelson’s “right-hand man is to assume a key position at Taglit-Birthright, in a move that could signal the conservative billionaire’s desire to wield more influence on policy-making at the organization, which brings tens of thousand of young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips each year.” His goals are probably more than religious and cultural, of course, as he likely views Birthright kids as future Republican voters, or at least Democrats hawkish on Israel. (Whether he’s right, of course, remains to be seen.) Citizens United gave Adelson some short-term tools, but he is playing a very long game.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email