Republican billionaires just can't seem to buy this election

It’s not just that Rove is personally marginalized. Donors have awakened to the realization that topflight consultants can earn millions from campaigns regardless of whether they win. “It bothers a lot of people that politics has become a cottage industry. Everyone is taking a piece of this and a slice of that,” says California winemaker John Jordan, a former Rove donor. “Crossroads treated me like a child with these investor conference calls where they wouldn’t tell you what was really going on. They offered platitudes and a newsletter.”

Working under the assumption that they can support a campaign better themselves, donors are building their own organizations, staffed by operatives who report to them. “A lot of people who felt betrayed in 2012 set out to build political structures,” says Kellyanne Conway, president of the pro–Ted Cruz super-pac Keep the Promise I, which is backed by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer. Mercer is a prime example of the new breed of activist donor. This presidential cycle, he has donated more than $30 million to a quartet of pro-Cruz super-pacs. A computer scientist by training, Mercer is also part owner of a political data firm called Cambridge Analytica, which boasts on its website that it employs “psychographic profiling” to recruit voters. As a result, Mercer’s pacs have shunned the traditional strategy of saturation TV coverage. Instead, Mercer is focused on targeted radio buys, digital outreach, and field organizing.

The savviest GOP candidates have capitalized on this shift. In fact, Cruz’s campaign fund-raising apparatus seems designed to let donors roll up their sleeves. Cruz contributors can specify how they want their money spent, much in the way universities allow benefactors to earmark their donations for a new science wing or aquatics center. “If you’re a donor, you can say, ‘I want to see this money used for Iowa,’ ” one strategist told me. “It’s a way to entice donors. They look at it like fantasy football.”