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Wall Street to candidates: Where's our return on investment?

The financial industry has tripled its campaign contributions in this presidential race — but it isn't making much difference on the campaign trail.

CNBC asked the Center for Responsive Politics to crunch the numbers — and the nonpartisan research group came back with some surprising data: For the full year of 2015, Wall Street executives and employees pumped more than triple the cash into the presidential campaign than they did during the same period in the 2012 cycle.

In total, presidential candidates and their affiliated outside groups raised just over $102 million from the securities and investment industry in 2015, compared with nearly $29 million in 2011, according to the center.

The New York Stock Exchange
Mike Segar | Reuters
The New York Stock Exchange

Of the 2015 campaign cash, $84.7 million of Wall Street's money went to Republicans and $17.6 million to Democrats. That compares with $26.4 million to Republicans and just $2.6 million to Democrats in 2011.

For this cycle, the center tracked Wall Street donations to 22 candidates in both parties. The top overall Wall Street money recipient for 2015 was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who raised $34.6 million. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was second, with $17.3 million. Next was Sen. Ted Cruz, with $12.2 million.

There are a number of reasons for the spike in Wall Street money, the main being that 2016 has lots of candidates on both sides campaigning for a wide open White House. In 2012, President Barack Obama was running for re-election as the only Democrat in the field and on the Republican side Wall Street money coalesced around Mitt Romney, who was widely seen as sympathetic to the financial industry.

For all the money Wall Street is spending, though, it's not making a difference: Of the top 10 recipients of Wall Street money in 2015, three have already dropped out — Gov. Scott Walker and Sens. Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham.

What's worse from Wall Street's perspective is that the candidates it least supports have been dominant on the campaign trail, and scored dramatic wins in the New Hampshire primary this week. Democrat Bernie Sanders received just $55,226 from the securities and investment industry, while billionaire Donald Trump, who is largely self-financing his campaign, has received just $11,900.

All that means Wall Street's traditional strength in presidential politics — cold, hard, cash — is proving less effective than ever in 2016. Not only that, the financial power of Wall Street does not seem to be able to counteract the political damage that a perceived close association with Wall Street can have on a presidential campaign. According to the center, the securities and investment industry is the number one group giving money to the overall Clinton effort this year, including the campaign and assorted super PACs that support her. On the campaign trail, Clinton has been fending off insinuations from Sanders that she is too close to Wall Street, and denying that campaign contributions and paid speaking fees from Wall Street have influenced her positions on the industry.

Even on the Republican side, in a party traditionally more comfortable with Wall Street, one of the TV ads airing in New Hampshire before the primary bashed Ohio Gov. John Kasich for his connections to the financial industry, including his time working at Lehman Brothers.


Top recipients of Wall St. donations in 2015

Candidate
Party
Total
Rank
Jeb Bush R $34,564,344 1
Hillary Clinton D $17,256,075 2
Ted Cruz R $12,211,000 3
Marco Rubio R $9,936,001 4
Scott Walker R $8,175,775 5
Chris Christie R $7,774,833 6
Rand Paul R $4,345,147 7
Carly Fiorina R $2,807,016 8
Lindsey Graham R $2,478,050 9
John Kasich R $1,405,300 10
Bobby Jindal R $477,250 11
Ben Carson R $290,612 12
Martin O'Malley D $202,400 13
George Pataki R $80,200 14
Rick Perry R $72,120 15
Bernie Sanders D $55,226 16
Lawrence Lessig D $37,035 17
Mike Huckabee R $29,400 18
Rick Santorum R $24,850 19
Donald Trump R $11,970 20
Jim Webb D $8,400 21
Jim Gilmore R $5,400 22

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

The other change propelling the surge in Wall Street spending is the rise in Citizens United-driven unlimited contributions to outside groups. That 2010 Supreme Court ruling dramatically changed the campaign finance landscape, making it possible for billionaires and corporations to write multimillion dollar checks to outside groups supporting particular candidates.

"Super PACs and their corresponding candidates are bolder," said Viveca Novak, the center's editorial and communications director. "For instance, in 2011 you never would have seen a candidate doing what Jeb Bush did, as in raising more than $100 million for a super PAC before even declaring candidacy."

They may be bold, but the numbers show that the Wall Street donors are not getting their money's worth on the campaign trail this year.

— CNBC's Karen James and Nicholas Wells contributed to this report.