The hunt for big dollars began in January 2015 outside Palm Springs, Calif., at a luxury hillside resort with sweeping views of the sprawling desert floor.
There, the emerging crop of Republican presidential candidates jockeyed to impress the millionaires and billionaires who make up the Koch political network. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas jetted in from a forum in Iowa, joined by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The Koch meeting was the beginning of a busy circuit of donor retreats held in exclusive locales such as Palm Beach, Fla., and Sea Island, Ga., that defined the early months of 2015 — an indicator of the new dominance the super-rich would have in the presidential contest.
In the end, there would be plenty of big checks to go around. And rich benefactors, it turned out, would have a limited ability to keep their chosen candidates aloft. But the all-consuming pursuit of mega-donors had a deeper, more fundamental effect on the 2016 presidential race.
The magnet of six- and seven-figure contributions tugged at the early White House front-runners in both parties, reshaping their political strategies and their early priorities. It drew them away from the campaign trail, leaving them vulnerable to the fiercely populist mood gripping voters — and to a candidate on the GOP side, Donald Trump, uniquely positioned to harness that anger.
“It sent the message to the public, much more so than usual, that there was a wealth primary and that the candidates were being selected by a handful of wealthy kingmakers,” said Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, which seeks to limit money flowing into elections. “And it affected the candidates, in the sense that that became what they were focused on.”
The lure of huge dollars set off an early fundraising stampede, led by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. He helped raise more than $100 million for an allied super PAC in 2015, all while maintaining that he had not yet decided whether to run. “Maybe one of the worst things to happen to Jeb was his campaign’s amazing ability to raise big money early,” said GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who worked in Bush’s gubernatorial administration and opposes Trump. “In some ways, it worked against him. It reinforced all the establishment stereotypes.”
Bush’s mammoth money operation prompted rivals such as Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton to jump-start their efforts to secure major donors.
In doing so, they seized on the new legal pathways that allow huge sums to flow into super PACs and political parties.
In any other year, a robust war chest would have been seen as a sign of a candidate’s strength. But Trump on the right and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) on the left quickly turned their rivals’ financial assets against them, tapping into a restive electorate disgusted with the powerful elite.
Trump made his independence from wealthy donors a centerpiece of his bid, deriding his opponents as “puppets” of patrons such as industrialist Charles Koch and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
“Should I take the money?” he asked fans at a rally in suburban Atlanta in October 2015.
The crowd responded with a loud, “Noooooo!”
“No? No?” Trump repeated.
“No!” came back the booming reply.
It was a warning: This is going to be a different kind of election.
Trump had the luxury to exploit his rivals’ dependence on big donors. The billionaire developer was sustained by not only his personal financial resources but also the many hours of free media airtime his provocative candidacy commanded.
“This cycle was a good illustration that money is one tool that impacts public opinion, but the media have a larger megaphone than any campaign is able to buy — and candidates and the dynamics of the field matter,” said Charlie Spies, a Republican campaign finance lawyer who served as counsel for Bush’s super PAC.
When the 2016 race kicked off, it initially seemed that one of the most valuable weapons would be an outside group stocked with big money. For the first time, personalized super PACs became the norm in a presidential campaign , run by the candidates’ close advisers.
There were supposed to be barriers, of course. Candidates could ask donors to contribute only up to $5,000 to a super PAC. And a campaign could not direct the paid-advertising strategy of a big-money group.
But with little threat of enforcement from the divided Federal Election Commission, candidates edged closer than ever to their outside allies. Long-shot contenders such as then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and former Texas governor Rick Perry relied on super PACs to effectively subsidize their efforts on the ground, helping draw out their campaigns.
Bush set the pace as an aggressive pioneer, blessing the creation of two PACs in January 2015. He immediately set off on a fundraising tear across the country for the groups, headlining events that cost as much as $100,000 a person. The money was piling up so quickly that, at one point, his team asked supporters to hold off giving more than $1 million.
By June, when Bush finally announced that he was running, he had amassed more than $114 million to bolster his candidacy. He shrugged off questions about whether he should have spent so much time fundraising.
“You might as well front-load it if you can,” the former governor said at the Koch summer donor seminar.
But his unprecedented haul papered over a fundamental weakness: Bush did not have a broad base of support. His allied super PAC, Right to Rise USA, had raised $103 million of the total. Meanwhile, small donors ponied up just $368,020 to his campaign.
Brad Deutsch, a campaign finance lawyer who served as lead counsel to Sanders’s campaign, said the 2016 election has exposed how super PACs can serve as “a trap for candidates who aren’t popular to begin with.”
“They can make up for it by having a few people give them money that will propel them,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they haven’t been forced to figure out how to connect with the people they need to connect with.”
Still, the GOP super-PAC embrace rattled Clinton, who decided to speed up her fundraising schedule out of fear that the Federal Election Commission would not rein in Bush and other Republicans, according to hacked emails and memos posted by WikiLeaks.
“Use this to scare our people into giving bigger sums,” campaign chairman John Podesta suggested to Clinton and other top advisers in May 2015.
Several weeks later, campaign vice chairman Huma Abedin noted that “we are looking to add more fundraisers in the last 2 weeks in June to get her to a higher number for this quarter,” adding, “It is doable, albeit a little crazy.”
The Clinton campaign also urged donors to contribute to two allied super PACs, including one that coordinated directly with the campaign. And later that year, officials set up a joint fundraising committee with dozens of state parties that accepted six-figure checks. The tactics helped bring in $1.3 billion to support Clinton’s bid. But they also exposed one of her biggest vulnerabilities: her long, deep ties to a network of rich supporters.
It was easy ammunition for Sanders, who was powered by an unprecedented online fundraising operation that vacuumed up millions in small donations.
“I am very proud I do not have a super PAC,” he jabbed at Clinton during a Democratic debate in January. “I do not want Wall Street’s money. I’ll rely on the middle class and working families.”
In the general election, Trump picked up that critique, repeatedly accusing Clinton of being corrupt and taking orders from her contributors. He neglected to mention his own billionaire backers — which by then included Adelson — or the array of super PACs that cropped up to support him.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton is 100% owned by her donors,” he tweeted in August. “#ImWithYou.”
Ultimately, the 2016 candidates who lasted the longest — Trump, Cruz, Clinton and Sanders — were sustained by robust small-donor bases. And all that big money that dazzled the White House hopefuls at the beginning of the race? Alone, it just wasn’t enough.
“Voters want more than just ads. They want to talk to you,” Walker said in a radio interview in June 2015 as he was preparing to jump into the race. “You can have all the money in the world, but if your message isn’t connecting, I think at some point, large sums of money become a disadvantage.”
Three months later, the Wisconsin governor had dropped out. His allied super PAC still had more than $18 million in the bank.