Wealthy donors are shelling out millions of dollars to presidential candidates who — polling suggests — don’t stand a chance of winning.
Billionaires and scions of the Mellon and Rockefeller families are throwing Super PAC cash at Independent Robert Kennedy Jr. and Democrat Dean Phillips — so much so that Kennedy could buy a $7 million Super Bowl ad slot Sunday.
“Never before has so much money been blown on such second-rate candidates,” one fundraising source said.
This new era, sources say, is a direct result of the deep disenchantment with both major political parties — and the candidates those parties are positioned to renominate.
“People don’t feel comfortable in their social circles supporting Trump or Biden,” the source says of the need to support candidates outside the Republican and Democrat establishment.
“Neither candidate hits the 50% approval mark,” Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf says.
Supporting an outside candidate is a way to either spoil the election or highlight more niche issues, like artificial intelligence regulation, that wouldn’t normally have a spotlight on the national stage.
Half of RFK Jr.’s $50 million haul is thanks to just two donors: 81-year-old heir to the Mellon fortune Timothy Mellon and security specialist to the stars Gavin de Becker, Rolling Stone reported.
The reclusive grandson of Gilded Age banker Andrew Mellon previously funded the search for Amelia Earhart’s aircraft and gave $53.1 million to Texas to help build the wall.
De Becker has worked with Jeff Bezos, John Travolta, Jane Fonds and Cher. Meanwhile longtime far-left donor Abby Rockefeller, a scion of the Standard Oil dynasty, gave RFK Jr. $100,000.
In previous elections long-shot candidates have failed to bring in mega donors, such as 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who raised a total $11.5 million during her ill-fated run. Ross Perot self-funded his 1992 bid with $12 million.
RFK Jr.’s top donor, Mellon, is also a longtime Trump supporter and has already donated $10 million to the former president this cycle. Given his existing allegiance to Republicans, some strategists have suggested Mellon is trying to spoil the race for Biden.
“These are setups to make sure someone fails,” Sheinkopf adds. “But it’s a gamble because no one really knows who he will take votes from.”
RFK Jr. is currently polling at 16% in Wisconsin and 8% in Michigan — key swing states where he could swing the race either direction.
Others suggest the two could feel a familial bond — RFK Jr.’s daughter Kick Kennedy dated Mellon’s distant cousin Matthew before the troubled banking heir’s death.
Phillips has been quieter about how much money his Super PAC has brought in but his campaign has raised more than $5 million and he loaned it an additional $4.2 million, according to election filings.
Bill Ackman, the outspoken activist hedge fund founder notably gave Phillips $1 million, according to reports.
Along with RFK Jr., Phillips has gotten cash from Silicon Valley titans including Gmail creator Paul Buchheit and OpenAI co-founder Matt Krisiloff.
Phillips has also had multiple phone calls with the man behind ChatGPT, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.
Venture capitalists Chamath Palihapitiya and David Sacks both hosted a fundraiser for RFK Jr. and gave their own donations.
The upside of supporting Phillips, who is still battling to secure the Democratic nomination, is less clear.
Phillips was the only name on the ballot in New Hampshire but still managed to lose to Biden — who secured 63% of the vote as a write-in candidate.
But tech insiders say throwing some cash at an unlikely candidate is a way to shape the debate and get a presidential candidate to start embracing your talking points.
“Because Phillips is a marginal candidate $1 million goes a long way,” the tech source adds.
New York Magazine notes that after Phillips got backing from those close to OpenAI he started highlighting the importance of not regulating AI.
Taking a chance on a person or an idea is also central to starting companies and making venture investments
“It’s like angel investing: these people have lots of money and they throw a little bit at someone to see what happens,” one tech source said.