clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The superrich are spending incredible amounts on the presidential election already

Nobody else's Super PAC even came close to the remarkable and historic haul of Jeb Bush's Right to Rise USA.
Nobody else's Super PAC even came close to the remarkable and historic haul of Jeb Bush's Right to Rise USA.
Kayana Szymczak/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

At least 62 donors have already given $1 million or more to  Super PACs supporting presidential candidates, new FEC filings revealed Friday. And more of those high-dollar givers are backing Jeb Bush than any other candidate.

It's an unprecedented flow of donations into the presidential race so early. And it proves yet again that the Citizens United era has transformed our campaigns, and made winning the support of the wealthiest individuals in the country more crucial for candidates than ever.

Nowadays, one superrich donor's whims can ensure that a candidate will be defended on the airwaves by an outside-spending Super PAC that can accept donations of unlimited size. Indeed, the vast majority of presidential campaigns — for which contributions from individuals are capped at $2,700 each for the primary and general election — were actually out-raised by the Super PACs supporting them so far this year.

And while Jeb Bush's operation raised by far the most money, only a few of his rivals have been completely left in the cold. Eleven of the 17 Republicans in the race have a supportive Super PAC with at least one million-dollar giver — as does Hillary Clinton. Here are four takeaways from the new disclosures.

1) Rich people really love Jeb Bush

Super PAC donors chart.

Nobody else's Super PAC even came close to the remarkable and historic haul of Jeb Bush's Right to Rise USA. It raised by far the most money ($103 million), and it had by far the most supporters who gave $1 million or more (24). It also had far more donors overall than most of his rivals' groups, making his operation less dependent on one particular person's generosity. The upshot is clear: A lot of rich people really, really want Jeb Bush to become president.

There are several reasons Right to Rise was so successful. First, there's the power of the Bush family network, built up over decades — at least 25 Bush Super PAC donors served as ambassadors in either Jeb's father or brother's administration. Second, Jeb's policy positions are very well aligned with the preferences of the GOP donor class, since he's a staunch conservative on economic issues like taxes but supports immigration reform. And third, Jeb delayed launching his campaign for months so he could keep personally asking donors for huge contributions to this Super PAC. Yet if Bush doesn't improve his poll position soon — he's fallen behind both Donald Trump and Scott Walker — his donors will begin to wonder whether they've made a bad bet.

2) Most of the other Republicans have found at least one sugar daddy

Billionaire Norman Braman (center) gives two thumbs up to Marco Rubio (front) during his April campaign launch. Braman gave $5 million to Rubio's Super PAC.

Joe Raedle / Getty

Bush's opponents can't compete with the overall size or breadth of his fundraising network. Yet most of them have managed to find at least one person who will give their Super PAC $1 million or more.

Scott Walker's most important supporters are the Ricketts family, who own the Chicago Cubs, and roofing material billionaire Diane Hendricks — they each gave his Unintimidated PAC $5 million. John Kasich's New Day for America had four different $1 million givers, three of whom are from Ohio. And Marco Rubio's Conservative Solutions PAC got $5 million from auto dealer Norman Braman, who has longtime personal and financial ties to the Rubio family. (Another big name on Rubio's list is Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who gave $3 million — as the third richest person in the US, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $50 billion, Ellison can certainly afford to spend a whole lot more on Rubio if he so chooses.)

Even candidates viewed as having little chance of winning — Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal — managed to find at least one cash cow willing to give their Super PAC at least $1 million. Those only ones who have failed to do so — so far, at least — are Ben Carson, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, Jim Gilmore, and Donald Trump.

3) Everything's bigger in Texas

Ted Cruz.

Alex Wong/Getty

Most observers also think Ted Cruz has practically no chance of winning the nomination. But you wouldn't be able to tell that from his Super PAC numbers, where the $37.8 million he raised was second in the GOP field overall. Nearly all of that comes from three big fish Cruz has hooked — hedge funder Robert Mercer, who gave $11 million, investor Toby Neugebauer, who gave $10 million, and the fracking billionaire Wilks brothers, whose family gave Cruz $10 million.

In a setup that was initially odd but has since become more common, each of these big donors has become the main funder of a separate pro-Cruz Super PAC — Mercer for Keep the Promise I, Neugebauer for Keep the Promise II, and the Wilks family for Keep the Promise III. (There's also another pro-Cruz Super PAC, which fundraises more broadly.) This gives the donors more say over how their cash is spent, but could lead to clashes over strategy later on. (Oddly, $500,000 of Mercer's donation was funneled over to a Super PAC supporting Carly Fiorina).

Supporters of the other Texan in the race, Rick Perry, seem to have copied Cruz's setup, starting three variations of the "Opportunity and Freedom" Super PAC for him. Perry, too, has been written off by most pundits, and is in serious danger of failing to qualify for next week's first GOP debate. But his Super PACs still managed to pull in $6 million from pipeline company CEO Kelcy Warren and $5 million from billionaire Darwin Deason.

4) On the Democratic side, only Hillary Clinton has had any Super PAC success


(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The much less competitive Democratic primary race has seen much less Super PAC action. The beleaguered group of Super PACs backing Clinton — Priorities USA Action, American Bridge 21st Century, and Correct the Record — raised over $23 million. Donors who gave $1 million include wealthy financiers George Soros and Herbert Sandler and Hollywood bigwigs Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Yet that haul is far less than Jeb Bush raised, and Democrats have been worried that their outside money operation simply can't compete with the GOP.

Meanwhile, Clinton's main rival, Bernie Sanders, has denounced Super PACs and doesn't want their support, pursuing instead a small donor fundraising model. He's reasonably successful in raising $15 million for his campaign, but that's still well behind Clinton's overall total and even further behind Jeb Bush, once Super PACs are included. (The Billionaires for Bernie Super PAC was recently started without Sanders's approval, but it hasn't disclosed any fundraising yet.)

Clinton's other rivals have done even worse. Martin O'Malley is supported by a Super PAC called Generation Forward, but it only managed to raise $289,000, and has spent nearly a third of it already. And there's no sign of any Super PAC backing for Jim Webb or Lincoln Chafee.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.