Hillary Rodham Clinton recently spent four days straight scurrying across the Western United States, mingling for hours at a time with hundreds of Democratic donors from the Rockies to Portland, Ore., from Southern California to the southern tip of Texas, and everywhere seeking the maximum primary campaign contribution allowed by law: $2,700.
But her exhausting, breakneck pace, and the kind of old-fashioned, face-to-face fund-raising that Mrs. Clinton and her husband, Bill, have perfected over the years, are no match so far for the cash pouring into Republican “super PACs” and other groups with no donation limits, one gargantuan check at a time.
Republican presidential candidates have gained a near monopoly on donors of $1 million or more, a New York Times analysis of financial records shows: 56 donors gave at least that much to committees supporting Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, for a total of $124.2 million — outgiving Democrats’ biggest donors by about 12 to 1.
A single Republican contributor — Robert Mercer, a hedge fund magnate who gave $11.3 million, nearly all of it to help Mr. Cruz — surpassed all of the million-dollar donors supporting Mrs. Clinton, combined.
The lopsided fund-raising terrain makes perfect sense, in several ways: The Republican nomination contest is crowded, competitive and costly; Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, by contrast, do not think she needs an urgent infusion of cash. Her fiercest Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has repudiated super PACs and the big-dollar donations they make possible. And Mrs. Clinton and the main super PAC supporting her,Priorities USA Action, both got a relatively late start raising money. Priorities USA Action did not even begin to request donations of more than $1 million until July, and since then has secured $20.5 million in commitments.
Mrs. Clinton’s allied super PACs, mindful that to resist the tide is to drown, are soliciting giant donations in earnest now, with her blessing. But the disparity, which has worried many Democrats, also has to do with the ambivalence, or outright disdain, that Mrs. Clinton’s donors say they feel, and that some say they have picked up from her, about the role that super PACs should play.
“We’ll see what’s happening later in the campaign, and some people may join those who have put money into the PACs, but the bottom line is we have to change the system,” said Sarah Kovner, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser and donor in New York.
Christopher Gates, president of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates open government, said, “It’s like public shaming.”
“Yes, it’s the rules, and, yes, it’s legal, but people are embarrassed to do it because they know it doesn’t look good,” he said.Mrs. Clinton initially showed some unease about the new set of financial expectations that greeted her candidacy: In the early weeks after her April announcement, Priorities USA Action asked her to go to the office of a potential donor whom she did not know personally but who had made a significant contribution to the group to help President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. Mrs. Clinton did not have time, according to people with knowledge of the request. (The meeting has since been rescheduled.)
That early discomfort points to the adjustment the Clintons and their vast circles of donors are having to make to the sharply altered fund-raising environment since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010.
When he first ran for president in 1992, Mr. Clinton pioneered an aggressive form of fund-raising, expanding the Democratic Party’s universe of contributors far beyond the liberals and labor unions of the Carter years by enlisting Hollywood personalities and Southern trial lawyers alike and rewarding their generosity with rounds of golf and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom. The Clintons amassed one of the most loyal donor networks in modern politics, with rich friends aiding multiple presidential campaigns, Mrs. Clinton’s Senate run, their family’s foundation and the campaigns of other Clinton friends, like Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 race for governor in Virginia.
But these donors have proved reluctant to give to Priorities USA Action.
Some said they saw no urgent need to contribute during the race for the Democratic nomination. But others said they were following Mrs. Clinton’s lead: She has repeatedly spoken out against the “corrupting” and “undermining” role that super PACs play, and has made campaign finance reform a central theme in her stump speech.
Numerous donors said in interviews that to avoid the potential reputational taint of a much bigger gift to a group like Priorities USA Action, they preferred the longstanding practice of bundling, or gathering wealthy friends to make traditional contributions to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. The 2016 limit is $5,400 for the primary and general elections.
“There are people who don’t like giving to super PACs,” said Thomas R. Nides, a friend and former aide to Mrs. Clinton at the State Department who is vice chairman at Morgan Stanley. “But be clear — if we have any shot in real campaign finance reform, we need to get her elected.”
(One option if Clinton donors continue to refrain from giving to Priorities USA Actionwould be to establish an affiliated nonprofit group to which contributions could remain anonymous. Doing so, though, would exploit a loophole that is “obviously much worse” than a super PAC, said Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor who is exploring a Democratic run for president on a single issue: campaign finance reform. Priorities USA Action already was criticized for accepting $1 million from another liberal group which in turn gets its money from two nonprofits whose sources of funding were not disclosed.)
To be sure, only a few donors who give the maximum are equally capable of writing a seven- or eight-figure check to a super PAC. And Mrs. Clinton has raised more in traditional contributions than any candidate in either party — $47.5 million.
Guy Cecil, the newly installed head of Priorities USA Action, said donors had been more concerned about how early it was in the election cycle than about any aversion to super PACs. But, he said, the huge sums of money raised by Republicans have started to change Democratic donors’ minds.
Republican contenders have used their overflowing coffers to bash one another, but the money has also helped finance months of attacks on Mrs. Clinton.
In mid-September, Right to Rise, a super PAC supporting Mr. Bush, plans to spend at least $10 million on television ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the group. Last month, Mr. Bush’s two PACs, which raised a record $108.5 million, reported spending $100,000on online ads in early primary states in part opposing Mrs. Clinton. And a super PAC supporting the Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, which recently trumpeted a “fiery new attack ad aimed squarely at Hillary Clinton,” received about $1.6 million, nearly half its funding, from a single donor: A. Jerrold Perenchio, a Los Angeles billionaire who made his money in media investments.
Mrs. Clinton’s donors have taken notice. “Over the last two months, they’ve seen in real time what’s actually happening on the other side and the severe attacks Hillary is under,” Mr. Cecil said, “and the reality that, when it comes to how campaigns are won, the ground underneath us has changed.”
In the first six months of the year, Priorities USA Action received a few $1 million checks: The media investor Haim Saban and his wife, Cheryl, each gave that much, as did the Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and the investor and philanthropist George Soros.
But Republican donors gave far more. In addition to Mr. Mercer, Toby Neugebauer, an equity investor, gave $10 million to another Cruz committee, and Kelcy L. Warren, an energy executive, gave $6 million to a committee backing Mr. Perry.
In May, amid concerns about the lack of high-dollar donations for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Cecil, a Clinton confidant, took over Priorities USA Action.
Mrs. Clinton has also become more comfortable with the group’s efforts. The law prohibits a candidate from directly requesting super PAC donations over $5,000, but Mrs. Clinton has made phone calls on the group’s behalf, and by late fall or early winter she and her husband are both expected to take meetings and attend events for Priorities USA Action.
To bridge the divide between her campaign message and the need to raise enormous sums, Mrs. Clinton tells donors that the only way to overturn the Citizens United ruling and do away with super PACs is to elect a Democrat. “We can’t unilaterally disarm,” she often says, sounding a refrain long heard from politicians promising to overhaul the campaign finance system, including Mr. Obama in 2012.
And Democratic fund-raisers say Mrs. Clinton’s involvement is helping Priorities USA Action gain ground. Longtime Clinton donors like the Chicagoans J.B. Pritzker and Fred Eychaner are expected to give this year, according to a senior Democratic strategist who is close to the Clintons but insisted on anonymity in order to discuss fund-raising candidly.
“At the end of the day,” said Andy Spahn, a political consultant to Hollywood donors, including Mr. Katzenberg, “it can’t be done without Hillary.”