Big Money Turned Upside Down

Albin Lohr-Jones/Sipa via AP Images

Following her victories in the Democratic primaries on "Super Tuesday," Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke at a rally for her supporters, many representing local unionized labor, at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City on March 2, 2016. 

When it comes to political money, the 2016 presidential general election campaign appears likely to become a contest between convention and chaos—between a consummate establishment fundraiser and a party renegade who thumbs his nose at big donors and at the consultant class.

The rule-breaker, of course, is billionaire businessman Donald Trump, who as a largely-self financed candidate has trumpeted his independence from special interest donors and Wall Street-backed super PACs. Trump’s $25 million campaign account is far smaller than those of his GOP rivals, yet wall-to-wall media coverage has helped him win one primary after another, including seven on Super Tuesday that make him look increasingly unstoppable as his party’s nominee.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has followed a predictable fundraising playbook perfected over decades as a Democratic rainmaker—cultivating top drawer donors at hundreds of fundraisers around the country; decrying super PACs while quietly encouraging their help; setting up a joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee that has netted $27 million. Clinton’s heavy reliance on Wall Street donors has drawn fire from her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, and is sure to dog her into the general election. But with $130 million in her campaign coffers and another $57 million collected by outside groups supporting her, Clinton has made sure that when the GOP attack machine kicks in, she’ll be ready.

The only question now is where deep-pocketed Republican donors, many of whom are actively plotting ways to derail Trump, will go. To date, Trump’s Republican opponents have been so busy attacking one another during their chaotic, crowded primaries that they’ve spent remarkably little opposing Trump. Of $215 million spent by super PACs since the beginning of the campaign, just $9 million—about 4 percent—has gone into anti-Trump attacks, according to The Washington Post.

That is starting to change. A new super PAC dubbed Our Principles PAC, overseen by former Mitt Romney aide Katie Packer, has started rounding up big donors and airing high-dollar ads against Trump. The group has hired former Jeb Bush spokesman Tim Miller to handle communications and its organizers reportedly talked strategy recently on a conference call with several dozen deep-pocketed GOP donors, including Hewlett Packard President and CEO Meg Whitman and hedge fund manager Paul Singer.

Other GOP super PACs have recently stepped up their attacks against Trump as well, airing some 6,000 ads against him in the two-week period before Super Tuesday, according to the Center for Public Integrity. It remains to be seen whether the money now spent against Trump proves any more effective than the $94 million that the Right to Rise super PAC spent trying to prop up former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, much of it on anti-Rubio ads. The danger for anti-Trump Republicans is that their spending blitz comes too late.

Right to Rise organizers will now have to decide what to do with the $24 million cash on hand they have leftover. Their most likely course is to return the money to its original donors, as the super PAC supporting Rick Perry did after the Texas ex-Governor dropped out. But that still leaves the question of where the GOP’s established donor class will turn if Trump emerges as their standard bearer. It’s hard to imagine the likes of hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who’s underwriting a super PAC supporting Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or billionaire auto magnate Norman Braman, who’s donated millions to the Conservative Solutions PAC supporting Rubio, suddenly rallying behind Trump.

Indeed, some of the GOP’s most influential money centers—the anti-tax Club for Growth Action, the conservative American Future Fund, which has ties to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch—have turned aggressively against Trump. And what of the vast Koch conservative network that, as The New York Times reported last year, was gearing up to spend $889 million in the election? Charles Koch has said that he won’t wade into the primary—but whatever happens, conservative donors cannot be expected to fall in uniformly behind Trump.

There’s talk among Republicans of a third party candidate, and some GOP donors may just sit out the race or focus only on the Senate. But many big-money conservative groups and contributors are likely to simply turn their sights on Clinton. Moneyed GOP interests may not be able to bring themselves to actually support Trump, but they will have no compunction about leveling attacks on Clinton. Indeed, a super PAC supported by top GOP donors has already started airing ads that assail Clinton for failing to release the transcripts of paid speeches she made to Wall Street firms.

Clinton’s well-funded outside allies are poised to fire back, as is her campaign, which continues to raise money at a rapid clip. But Clinton’s old-school fundraising style could hurt her as much as it helps in this volatile election. Clinton and the super PAC backing her, Priorities USA Action, have netted $18 million from the securities and investment industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Plenty of candidates, including President Barack Obama, have drawn down millions from Wall Street in the past. But angry voters have scrambled expectations this year, and the conventional rules of the political money game are being turned upside down.

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