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 a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods 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 much of the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, according to a New York Times investigation.
The 158 families each contributed $250,000 or more in the campaign through June 30, according to the most recent available Federal Election Commission filings and other data, while an additional 200 families gave more than $100,000. Together, the two groups contributed well over half the money in the presidential election — the vast majority of it supporting Republicans.
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 legalized 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 come 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 United States, immigrating from countries like 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 Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains, and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs.
While such measures would help protect their own wealth, the donors describe their embrace of them more broadly, as the surest means of promoting economic growth and preserving a system to allow others to prosper, too.
“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 Doug Deason, a Dallas investor whose family put $5 million behind Governor Rick Perry of Texas and now, after Perry’s exit, is being courted by many of the remaining candidates. “They’ve done well. They want to see other people do well.”
In marshaling their financial resources chiefly behind Republican candidates, the donors are also serving as a kind of financial check on demographic forces that have been nudging the electorate toward support for the Democratic Party and its economic policies.
Two-thirds of Americans support higher taxes on those earning $1 million or more a year, according to a June New York Times/CBS News poll, while 6 in 10 favor more government intervention to reduce the gap between rich and poor. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 7 in 10 favor preserving Social Security and Medicare benefits as they are.
Most of the families are clustered around just nine cities. Many are neighbors in neighborhoods 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 a private security force and just 35 homes lining an 18-hole golf course.
The donor families’ wealth reflects, in part, the vast growth of the financial-services sector and the boom in oil and gas, which have helped transform the US economy in recent decades.
They are also the beneficiaries of political and economic forces that are driving widening inequality: As the share of national wealth and income going to the middle class has shrunk, these families are among those whose share has grown.
The accumulation of wealth has been particularly rapid at the elite levels of Wall Street, where financiers who once managed others people’s capital now, increasingly, own it themselves.
Since 1979, according to one study, the one-tenth of 1 percent of US taxpayers who work in finance have approximately quintupled their share of the country’s income. Sixty-four of the families made their wealth in finance, the largest single faction among the super-donors of 2016.
But instead of working their way up to the executive suite at Goldman Sachs or Exxon, most of these donors set out on their own, establishing privately held firms controlled individually or with partners. In finance, they started hedge funds or formed private equity and venture capital firms. In energy, they capitalized on new technologies or new sources of oil and gas.