NEW YORK • They are overwhelmingly white, wealthy, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women and by black and brown voters.
Across the sprawling United States, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighbourhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy.
Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed US$176 million (S$245 million) in the first phase of the campaign, according to a New York Times investigation.
Campaign donors' profiles
Here is a look at some of the families and the amount they donated, as well as the make-up of the donors:
• Most of the families are clustered around just nine cities. Many are neighbours in areas such as Bel Air and Brentwood in Los Angeles; River Oaks, a Houston community popular with energy executives; or Indian Creek Village, a private island near Miami that has its own security force and just 35 homes lining an 18-hole golf course.
• Sometimes they are patrons of the same symphonies, museums or at-risk youth programmes. They are business partners, in-laws and, on occasion, poker buddies.
• More than 50 members of these families have made the Forbes 400 list of the top billionaires in the US. Sixty-four of the families made their wealth in finance, the largest single faction among the super-donors. Chicago hedge fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin, for example, earns about US$68.5 million (S$95.6 million) a month after taxes, according to court filings made by his wife in their divorce. He has given a total of US$300,000 to groups backing Republican presidential candidates.
• The three families who have provided the largest donations in the campaign to date - the Wilks family of Texas, which made billions providing trucks and equipment in the shale fields; the Mercers of New York, headed by hedge fund investor Robert Mercer; and Mr Toby Neugebauer, a Texas-born private equity investor - have backed Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a socially conservative Tea Party firebrand disdained by Republican leaders.
NEW YORK TIMES
THEIR OWN DRUMBEAT
When I look at these families, these are highly successful people, they're used to moving mountains, and they love to beat the conventional wisdom.
MR DAVID MCCURDY, a former Oklahoma congressman who is now president of the American Gas Association
Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much of the early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalised by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision five years ago.
These donors' fortunes reflect the shifting composition of the country's economic elite. Relatively few work in the traditional ranks of corporate America, or hail from dynasties of inherited wealth. Most built their own businesses, parlaying talent and an appetite for risk into huge wealth: They founded hedge funds in New York, bought up undervalued oil leases in Texas, made blockbusters in Hollywood. More than a dozen of the elite donors were born outside the US, emigrating from countries such as Cuba, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, India and Israel.
But regardless of industry, the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right, contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republicans who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programmes.
"It's a lot of families around the country who are self-made who feel like over-regulation puts these burdens on smaller companies," said Mr Doug Deason, a Dallas investor whose family put US$5 million behind Governor Rick Perry of Texas and now, after Mr Perry's exit, is being courted by many of the remaining candidates.
"They've done well. They want to see other people do well."
Republican candidates have struggled to improve their standing with Hispanic voters, women and African-Americans. But as the campaign unfolds, Republicans are far outpacing Democrats in exploiting the world of super PACs, independent political committees which, unlike candidates' own campaigns, can raise unlimited sums from any donor, and which have amassed the bulk of the money in the election.
The 158 families each contributed US$250,000 or more in the campaign through June 30, according to the most recent available Federal Election Commission filings and other data, while a further 200 families gave more than US$100,000. Together, the two groups contributed well over half the money in the presidential election - the vast majority of it supporting Republicans.
Another group of the families, including hedge fund investor George Soros and his son Jonathan, have ties to the Democracy Alliance, a network of liberal donors who have pushed Democrats to move aggressively on climate change legislation and progressive taxation.
Those donors, many of them from Hollywood or Wall Street, have put millions behind Mrs Hillary Clinton.
The giving reflects the political stakes this year for the families and businesses that have moved most aggressively to take advantage of Citizens United, particularly in the energy and finance industries.
The Obama administration, Democrats in Congress and even Republican contender Jeb Bush have argued for tax and regulatory shifts that could subject many venture capital and private equity firms to higher levels of corporate or investment taxation.
Hedge funds, which historically were lightly regulated, are bound by new rules with the Dodd-Frank regulations, which several Republican candidates have pledged to roll back and which Mrs Clinton has pledged to defend.
And while the shale boom has generated new fortunes, it has also produced a glut of oil that is driving down prices. Most in the industry are in favour of lifting the 40-year-old ban on oil exports, which would give domestic producers access to new customers overseas, and approval of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.
"They don't want anything from the government except that they'd like to export oil, and most of them want the Keystone pipeline," Mr T. Boone Pickens, the investor and natural gas advocate, said about his colleagues in the energy business.
"They're entrepreneurs, and they have opinions about everything."
NEW YORK TIMES