Mega-donors extend 'shelf life' of struggling 2016 Republican hopefuls
Rick Perry (CNN)

Chris Christie and Rick Perry may have stalled in the US presidential race but they could struggle on to the first primary votes, thanks to the mega-donors keeping their campaigns afloat.

Polling trends suggest neither is likely to make the 10-candidate cut for the next televised Republican presidential debate on September 16.

But in American politics a few generous donors can keep a sputtering campaign alive, even when the political winds fail to fill a candidate's sails.

"This is the bring-your-own-billionaire election," Chris Gates, president of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan, pro-transparency group that is tracking 2016 campaign finance, told AFP on Monday.

"It does allow them to hang on," he said of the largesse. "It extends the shelf life of candidates who may not be creating any buzz or fire in the electorate."

Individuals are limited to contributing $2,700 directly to any candidate in federal elections.

But with campaign finance laws loosened in recent years, Americans are unbridled when it comes to contributing to "super PACs," independent political action committees that can raise unlimited funds but can not coordinate with a candidate's campaign.

New Jersey Governor Christie and former Texas governor Perry are but two of many in the 17-deep Republican field seemingly propped up by backers with deep pockets.

The pair currently average a combined 4.6 percent support in the polls. But they have seen a whopping $24 million already poured into super PACs backing their bids.

Perry's official campaign raised just $1.1 million in its first month, filings with the Federal Election Commission show, far less than better-placed rivals like Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz.

Perry can reportedly no longer pay many staffers, but he insists on soldiering on, saying it's not a sprint but a marathon.

"It's my understanding the super PAC has an extraordinary amount of dollars," Perry maintained last week, according to the Texas Tribune.

"They're going to be out telling our story, so we'll make this."

FEC filings show that two pro-Perry super PACs have raised more than $13 million, including two monster donations from a pair of Texas billionaires.

One of them, Kelcy Warren, chief executive of pipeline giant Energy Transfer Partners which has Perry on its board, ponied up $6 million to the Opportunity and Freedom PACs.

A million-dollar donation to America Leads, which backs Christie, came from Paul Fireman, who wants to build a $4 billion casino resort in Christie's state.

- 'Wild West' finance -

Four years ago it was former House speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative ex-senator Rick Santorum who "kept going beyond what some thought of as their natural campaign lives" thanks to wealthy benefactors, said Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit group that tracks money in politics.

"What's different this time is that many of these super PACs are undertaking activities previously thought of as campaign activities," including voter outreach and door-knocking, Novak said.

The lines have begun to blur, and with the FEC in perpetual deadlock and offering "zero enforcement," according to Sunlight's Gates, "it's pretty much the wild West out there."

Among top donors aiming to shape the election are Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who, with a network of hundreds of donors they have cultivated over decades, plan to spend nearly $900 million through 2016, much of it on the presidential campaign.

The concept of candidates beating a path to the Koch door, particularly when the brothers host private retreats where the likes of Bush, Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio and former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina can woo hundreds of wealthy donors directly, has become known as the "Koch primary."

Locking up such support could spell the difference between a campaign's longevity or an early exit.

"What we're seeing is the ultra-wealthy picking the field, or expanding the field," Novak said.

In the case of Donald Trump, the ultra-wealthy businessman is leading the field. The bombastic real estate mogul says he is beholden to no super PACs or special interests, and that he could stay in the race for the long haul, even if his star fades once voting begins in February.