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The Most Powerful Political Money Man You’ve Never Heard Of

2014 World Science Festival Gala

Bob Mercer attends the World Science Festival Gala on April 7, 2014 in New York. Andrew Toth / Getty Images

The big money behind the elections Tuesday comes from a host of familiar billionaires.

Republican industrialists Charles and David Koch are as powerful as ever. Tom Steyer, the hedge fund manager-turned- environmentalist, has been highly public about his climate-change crusade. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is again in the mix focusing on gun laws, education and gay marriage. Mega midterm donors also include ultra-wealthy investors Paul Singer and George Soros and their respective conservative and liberal causes.

But there's one name on the top 10 list most people won't recognize: Robert Mercer.

Better known as "Bob," Mercer is co-head of Renaissance Technologies, a secretive hedge fund firm that manages $25 billion using fast-trading computer programs from its headquarters in a quiet hamlet on Long Island.

Thanks both to looser campaign finance rules and his promotion to help lead one of the largest hedge funds in the world, Mercer has quietly become a major player in politics since 2010. With more than $8 million donated this election election cycle alone, he's the second-largest Republican donor to outside spending groups since the 2012, behind only Singer, and fourth overall after Steyer and Bloomberg.

"I don't usually talk about myself so it's not a comfortable thing."

Recent donations include a $2.5 million check to Kochs' Freedom Partners Action Fund—more than the Koch bothers themselves have given—a "super" political action committee that has spent $24 million to support Republicans like Senate hopefuls Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado. Super PACs were made possible by the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, which allows them to accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals as long as they don't coordinate directl Mercer has also given $1 million or more each to super PACs Club for Growth Action, which works to limit the size of government by backing conservative candidates like Arkansas Senate hopeful Tom Cotton; Ending Spending Action Fund, which focuses on small government politicians; and John Bolton Super PAC, a group supporting potential Republican presidential candidates and other politicians who are seen as strong on defense.

His family foundation, technically run by his daughter Rebekah, has also supported a slew of conservative causes. Donations in 2012 included the Media Research Center, which tracks perceived liberal bias in the media; the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, which denies man-made climate change; and the Heartland Institute, which promotes "free-market solutions to social and economic problems".

Little known by design

Mercer is little known by design.

While he has cut big checks to candidates and causes he believes in, Mercer avoids the social and charity circuit common to wealthy financiers. Few pictures of him exist, except for some uncomfortable shots at poker tournaments or scientific charity events organized by his former boss James Simons, the billionaire founder of Renaissance who retired as CEO in January 2010.

A model train aficionado, Mercer doesn't even like to speak, at least in public.

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"I don't usually talk about myself so it's not a comfortable thing," Mercer said in a rare speech this summer in Baltimore to accept a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics. The 40-minute acceptance talk, he said, was "more than I typically talk in a month. … It's quite a challenge."

A spokesman for Renaissance, Jonathan Gasthalter of high-powered public relations shop Sard Verbinnen, declined to comment on behalf of Mercer, Simons and the firm.

Mercer's main language is code, a lifelong passion that has made him likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars. "What I am is simply a computer programmer," Mercer said in his ACL speech. "I've taken great pleasure in programs that do remarkable things."

Mercer was born in San Jose, California, on July 11, 1946 and grew up in New Mexico. According to his speech, he was exposed to computers as a 10-year-old, when his father explained the workings of an IBM 650, the first mass-produced computer that used a magnetic drum and punch cards to perform up to 5,000 multiplications per minute.

He got to work directly with computers the summer after his senior year in high school while representing New Mexico at the National Youth Science Camp in West Virginia, where he learned to program on early software known as Fortran (from "FormulaTranslator").

Mercer went on to get a bachelor's degree in physics and mathematics from the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque in 1968. There were no computer sciences courses at the school, but Mercer got a side job writing programs at the Kirtland Air Force Base's weapons lab.

That government job made a poor impression on him.

"One of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers as it is to consume the computer budget," he said in the speech. "[It] left me ever since with a jaundiced view of government-financed research."

But overall the weapons lab work taught Mercer that he "really loved computers." So he got a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he helped a professor, Dan Slotnick, on the Illiac IV, then the world's fastest computer.

Mercer graduated in 1972 and took a job at IBM. He worked on speech recognition in the company's Watson Research Center in New York suburb Yorktown Heights. During his 20 years at IBM, he did pioneering work on language using statistics, both getting computers to translate speech to text and translating between languages.

"The impact of their work was revolutionary," ACL said in a statement on its lifetime achievement award. "The probabilistic approaches to computational linguistics that Bob and colleagues pioneered now dominate the field of machine translation, and provide the underpinning of many of the tools that people now regularly use."

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In 1993, Mercer and IBM colleague Peter Brown got a recruitment letter from Renaissance. They initially threw the letters out, according to rare October 2013 public comments by Brown at Johns Hopkins University, but ultimately decided to leave the IBM job at which they were "very happy." Mercer was struggling with paying college tuition bills for his three daughters, according to Brown, and Renaissance was offering 50 percent more pay.

Simons—a former government defense code breaker, chairman of the mathematics department at Stony Brook University and a prize-winning mathematician—needed coding help and Mercer and Brown provided it.

Coding guru

Renaissance, which employs about 75 science Ph.D. recipients, looks for unusual market patterns and then writes computer codes to trade on them. Little about how the firm trades has been made public since it was founded in 1982, but one example is using weather patterns. Renaissance bought data on clouds and, according to co-CEO Brown in the Hopkins talk, found that markets are less likely to rise on cloudy days, a pattern then confirmed by looking at data from Paris, Milan, Tokyo and Sao Paulo and New York.

Whatever the technique, Renaissance has produced spectacular returns in its oldest fund, Medallion. Medallion was initially open to outside investors, but in 1993 turned into a vehicle for Renaissance employees and their families. Several media reports have put its return at an annualized rate of about 35 percent since it went private. The number could not be independently verified.

Two new funds launched in the mid-2000s to great fanfare. But they've produced more humble returns for pensions, endowments and other large investors. The Renaissance Institutional Equities Fund has produced annualized returns of 8.35 percent net of fees from August 2005 through September 2014, according to performance data obtained by CNBC.com. And the Renaissance Institutional Futures Fund has returned 3.53 percent annually net of fees from October 2007 through September.

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Mercer and Brown worked exceptionally hard at Renaissance.

"Because everything is hush-hush, we lost all contact with the outside world. We went into a cocoon and focused all our energy on just staying afloat," Brown said in the Hopkins speech of the duo's early days at the hedge fund firm.

A former colleague of Mercer's at Renaissance remembers him as "very conservative" and a "very strong" coder who effectively converted his work on information theory from language processing to investing. "The sort of … analysis used there is highly applicable to a lot of modern statistical approaches to markets," said the person, who asked not to be named.

Mercer and Brown were virtually unknown on Wall Street before Simons retired and gave them leadership of the firm in 2010.

They've slowly started to engage more with the outside world. Brown said that their October 2013 joint appearance at an event celebrating their machine translation work was the first business trip either of them had taken since going to a conference in 1992. Brown said in the Hopkins speech that he still sleeps at the East Setauket, New York-headquarters three days a week.

The job doesn't involve as much coding today given Mercer's management role for the eighth largest hedge fund in the U.S. "We end up probably writing more legal documents than computer programs," Brown said in his talk.

Regardless, the hard work has paid off. Mercer earned an estimated $125 million in 2011, $100 million in 2012 and $115 million in 2013, according to hedge fund publication Alpha. Mercer and Brown each own less than 5 percent of Renaissance. Simons, who supports Democrats, remains the principal shareholder and is worth $12.5 billion, according to Forbes.