The year when money won nobody nothing

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WASHINGTON — It was a golden age to be a man of means.

Never before did the nation’s top political donors have so much influence. Potential presidents needed their checks, their favor, their blessing. Republican and Democratic moneymen were minor celebrities and major kingmakers, coasting through 2014 and 2015 with full confidence that their already privileged positions in American society were about to grow even more advantaged.

Their egos were shattered months ago. But it was Tuesday when their robes were stripped and powerlessness exposed.

Take Michael Vlock.

“Until you repudiate Trump, you have lost me,” the Connecticut investor wrote to Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus in an email this past June, shared with CNN. “The damage that Trump has done and continues to inflict on the party and its future is incalculable.”

Priebus did indeed lose one of his most generous donors. No matter. Trump won the White House and Republicans held on to the House and Senate.

Almost all players, Republican and Democrat, acknowledge that their dollars had a far more limited impact than they themselves had predicted at the campaign’s starting gun.

What has perplexed the nation’s political financiers, according to more than a dozen interviews with leading players, is what 2016 has signaled — if anything — about the changing country. Some, including loyalists to Trump and Bernie Sanders, argue that they have crafted the new normal, pooh-poohing the rich as self-important and — in a painful indictment of the entire big-money world — proven to be powerless. A high-wattage, carefully cultivated super PAC? No need, they say. Have a real movement, and watch the money bloom eternal.

The other train of thought — often from the spurned corps of professionals who have, at some point, been cast as the elite bogeymen: Trump is a self-financed, larger-than-life aberration that tells us next to nothing about how money will rule in the post-Trump era. Super PACs, attack ads and the luxury fundraising circuit? How the game is played — now and forever.

High time to be a donor

Even when aspiring candidates were being almost laughably coy about their presidential intentions in 2014 and 2015, there was one group of Americans with whom they could tell it straight: mega-donors.

After all, this was now the second presidential cycle since the Supreme Court paved the way for billionaires to give seven- and eight-figure checks to affiliated super PACs. Candidates could thoroughly prepare to capitalize on the new rules — and they did. Behind the scenes, Republicans and Democrats carefully dispatched operatives to favored groups, which for the first time were enmeshed within their political infrastructure.

Donors have always been literally the lifeblood of a campaign, but now, the thinking went, their opinions and checks were more consequential than ever, worrying good-government reformers. At ritzy private conclaves in Utah’s Watasch Mountains, Florida’s Atlantic coast and Southern California’s Sonoran Desert, the hopefuls twisted arms and vied for hearts, knowing that the favor of any one man in the room could place them on a path to the most powerful job in the world.

“There a bunch of Democrats who have taken as the talking points that the Koch brothers are the nexus of all evil in the world,” bellowed Ted Cruz in January 2015, before a ballroom of Koch donors in that California resort. “Let me be very clear: I think that is grotesque and offensive.”

Cruz wasn’t the favorite of the donors, however. It was someone who moved within their circles for decades, with a moderate vision, cool temperament and an insatiable drive to stockpile as much cash as humanly possible into his warchest: Jeb Bush.

In order to execute what associates called a “shock-and-awe” fundraising drive, Bush spent the first half of 2015 promising that he wasn’t an official candidate, allowing him to fundraise directly for the PAC that would raise $100 million in a six-month period.

Bush, of course, lost. And the Right to Rise juggernaut has now emerged as the poster child for donors’ impotence.

“Money absolutely has a weakened influence if you’re running against a billionaire reality TV star,” said Charlie Spies, the super PAC’s attorney who counsels many of the party’s major givers. “In the remote chance that you’re not in the exact scenario, you would rather have the money.”

Breaking all the rules

Meanwhile, another presidential candidate was doing something far, far different.

“I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers. Puppets?” read one @realDonaldTrump tweet.

Then a few months later: “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”

And a few months after that: “I hear the Rickets family, who own the Chicago Cubs, are secretly spending $’s against me. They better be careful, they have a lot to hide!”

With aplomb and daring, Trump insulted three of the Republican Party’s most illustrious benefactors — even misspelling Ricketts — and whether it was on Twitter or before donor-filled debate auditoriums, it was clear Trump was reveling in it.

To rivals gasping for air time, teetering on the bring of financial collapse, and begging donors for just one more check, it was infuriating. As Trump poked every major giver in the eye — putting up $45 million of his own money to run a skeletal primary campaign — Trump rivals found themselves more dependent than ever on those same donors.

“For him, did money matter as much? No,” said Jeff Miller, who managed Rick Perry’s chronically underfunded 2016 bid. “If we had more money, could Rick Perry have been more successful? Yes.”

Perry and the other 16 candidates seeking the presidency went to war over what is still a fairly concentrated list of mega-donors. Bundlers recalled hard sell after hard sell by Republicans seeking exclusive commitments, and if their candidate dropped out, there was no grace period before vulture finance operations swarmed and asked them for their Rolodex.

It was nice to be in the driver’s seat, donors said at the time. But after parting millions to a series of outside groups in 2012 and insisting on little accountability in return, donors like those who pledged to Perry eyed something else this cycle. I’ve been successful running my own company, many of these titans of industry thought. So, why can’t I fund and run by own super PAC?

Across the political spectrum — whether it was Democratic environmentalist Tom Steyer or maverick independent Michael Bloomberg or reliable Perry energy benefactor Kelcy Warren — donors took things into their own hands, starting personalized super PACs that tested their political savvy and gave them unprecedented control over their own dollars.

They weren’t unilaterally successful — one network crafted by Cruz was particularly cumbersome and criticized — but their creations reflect an exaggerated self-reflection among the moneyed class: they think they’re political pros, too.

“If the donors hadn’t known if they had that degree of influence, maybe they wouldn’t have given the money in the first place,” said Stefan Passantino, the lawyer who set up these suite of super PACs for both Perry and Cruz.

But Trump remarkably escaped largely unscathed from those super PAC ad machines. It’s a decision some donors now say they regret.

It wasn’t until about 10 days before the Iowa caucuses that paralyzed donors — split across about a half-dozen top-tier contenders — realized the damage Trump could do in the upcoming nominating contests. Donors — led by the Ricketts family — frantically came together and formed Our Principles PAC, though the roster of major givers never crossed into double digits.

By the time Trump had bull rushed to Florida — anti-Trump money was flowing, and the week before the March 15 primaries saw more than $10 million in television advertising against the frontrunner there.

Trump won the state by 18 points.

Our Principles donors like Vlock say there just weren’t enough donors willing to run the anti-Trump advertising campaign that he deserved.

“I certainly sleep better at night for it. Am I disappointed in the outcome? Of course I am,” said Vlock. “Am I pissed? Yeah. Am I ever going to support people who aggressively supported or campaigned with Donald Trump? Absolutely not. Never.”

The $27 dollar revolution

If the Republican primary is a story about how big donors can’t subvert the will of the people, the Democratic primary is a story of how a different type of donor can reflect it.

Trump didn’t raise small-dollar money during the primary. A candidate with Trump-like enthusiasm did: Sanders.

Gravely intoning against super PACs and Citizens United to massive crowds across the country’s liberal meccas, Sanders discovered something that reformers have long maintained exists under the surface — that campaign-finance reform can be not just a winning issue for politicians, but a fundraising tool of its own.

And improbably, Sanders — with virtually no fundraising events, limited outside spending and a on-edge relationship with party leadership — came close to matching the vaunted Clinton machine dollar for dollar, reaching parity on television during some weeks and even out-raising her during some months.

Sanders would raise $231 million when all was said and done, $134 million of which came from small donors.

“We do not represent the interests of Wall Street or the billionaires class or corporate America,” he said before 28,000 people in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, just a few subway stops away from those banks. “We don’t want their money. We’re going to do it a different way.”

But Sanders fans and rivals alike are skeptical over-drawing conclusions: no one is suggesting that a modern presidential candidate could forgo super PACs entirely moving forward and just focus on hard dollars. Few folks say it is time to ditch fundraisers, which have been a bedrock of the hustings for a century. And as Sanders loyalists stress, there have not been many candidates like Sanders, who was so willing to sacrifice money on the table in order to remain ideologically consistent.

And after all, Sanders lost.

“There is the capacity for small-dollar donations to completely shift how campaigns are run,” said Michael Whitney, the whiz behind Sanders’ online money operation.

Sanders campaign, though, did at least offer the beginnings of another model for the presidential candidates over the future.

As Sanders bellowed about how Clinton had disqualified herself from the presidency with a super PAC, the eventual Democratic nominee’s supporters were taking advantage of big-money politics in an unprecedented show of force.

The success of Priorities USA, according to political players on both sides of the aisle, reflected a new reality in campaigns: Four years after Obama belatedly and tepidly dove into super PAC politics, Democrats this cycle finally embraced the new super PAC landscape, insisting that there was no contradiction between their call to overturn Citizens United while simultaneously funneling record-setting amounts into their own groups.

By the end of the campaign, Priorities had raised more than any other super PAC ever, capitalizing on the new wild west of fundraising in a way that made Republicans look like the skittish big-money players.

Despite drama between rival factions at the beginning of the cycle, Priorities settled into a largely drama-less groove that Trump super PAC officials would later envy.

Fundraising was heavily dependent on just about a dozen billionaires, but flowed at a constant drumbeat. And nearly every day, it seemed, Priorities had a new television ad backed by their fortunes — many of which played highlights of Trump’s most disparaging comments.

Democrats expected to need about $1 billion to support her via Priorities, the campaign and the Democratic National Committee — a threshold they reached in no small part because they thought Republicans would match them dollar for dollar.

But at Clinton’s low points in the race — or, at least, when she wasn’t running away with the race — Priorities was dogged by questions about its effectiveness given its enormous advantages. Questions peaked during the early summer, when Trump stubbornly remained competitive despite a one-sided onslaught on television.

“How did they not bury him?” asked Carl Forti, a veteran Republican super PAC ad maker with American Crossroads.

In the days leading up to Clinton’s humbling defeat, some of Priorities’ biggest givers were reluctant to project much confidence, signaling that even they were unsure that their millions of dollars made an iota of difference.

“You always have doubts,” said Dan Abraham, who gave nearly $10 million to Priorities. “You spend your money. You do the best advertising you can. And you hope for the best.”

Priorities sped through 2015 stockpiling as much cash as possible, expecting to need to begin advertisements in December 2015 or the first two months of 2016. Cash couldn’t be spent on a primary — after all, they needed every dollar to cut out the knees of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker or Marco Rubio in the autumn of 2016. They expected to know their likely opponent by the end of the year.

“As soon as the nominee was established on the Republican side, there was going to be an onslaught of spending coming from conservatives,” Anne Capara, the executive director of Priorities, said she thought. “Obviously those were two things that didn’t happen.”

Winning on the cheap

Trump, who claims to be worth upwards of $10 billion, declined to put more than $65 million of his own money toward his bid.

He also did not start truly fundraising until late May — and made little effort to assuage his party’s traditional givers, who rewarded him with an unprecedented rejection even after he became the nominee.

And he refused to authorize a single super PAC — and waited until weeks after the nominating conventions to begin his own advertising on television, even though Clinton had raked him across the coals for three months.

Trump essentially offered a test case for political scientists eager to inject a field experiment into the middle of a presidential campaign: How much can a presidential candidate raise if he started from a standstill six months before Election Day?

Some donors, like Vlock, never came around — and threatened to punish Republicans who enabled Trump’s rise. Another wide swath reacted cooly, perhaps voting for him in the privacy of a voting booth but certainly not bundling hard dollars.

And then there were the Republicans who Trump charmed as he trekked from Aspen to Napa Valley to Lake Tahoe, winning over checkbooks with his willingness to affix his signature to everything and listen to donors’ advice on anything.

In private, Trump could work a room with the best of them.

But the holdouts remained costly, donors now say, freezing tens of millions of dollars in certain states. There was one thing that saved his campaign — one that not even the most bullish Republicans expected.

“Trump was able to on his own salvage his deficit based on those $65 contributions and that’s something that surprised him as much as anybody,” said Brian Ballard, who ran Trump’s fundraising operation in Florida. “Without it, Trump would’ve been going to his wallet a lot deeper or not able to compete.”

A wildly successful small-dollar operation was Trump’s saving grace, offering Republicans a model for fundraising that veterans said they had never before proven possible. Despite his enormous financial disadvantage, Trump was improbably able to keep the advertising war close in the race’s final weeks.

Some outside groups popped up to help Trump on their own. Sheldon Adelson eventually put forward $25 million on his behalf, but in the last month of the campaign, when ad rates had risen through the roof. (Republicans now think it may have made a difference.)

Yet the fact is that the Republican Party’s two most powerful donor networks snubbed him: the American Crossroads network spent fortunes on ads to hold the Senate, and the Koch network that Trump mocked maintains it saw real payoff from their early 2016 TV push in Senate races — not on Trump’s bid.

“What we saw for sure this cycle is you can spend a whole lot of money and not get anywhere,” said Mark Holden, the head of the Kochs’ political operation.

In Trump’s orbit, a similar deep skepticism for paid media reigned. Peter Thiel, Trump’s main donor ally in Silicon Valley, didn’t give to Trump because he “didn’t even think that Trump needed my money.”

And on that question — Charles and David Koch, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were all right. He didn’t.

“When I first started at all, money was used hardly at all for advertising. Then it got to the point where it was used only for advertising,” recalled Peter Kalikow, a fellow New York real estate magnate who is close with Trump. “You can’t make a guy who is not good, good. I don’t care how much money you spend on it.”