Tracking The Money Spent On Campaign Ads

Beginning Wednesday, Americans can again turn their televisions on without fear of a negative political bombardment. A record sum of campaign cash was behind those commercials. Just how much money has been spent and by what candidates, parties and groups? Totals are very hard to pin down.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

On this election morning we cannot tell you who is going to win, but we can tell you how much they're spending to win - at least our best estimates as of now. We're nearing the end of an unusually expensive election year.

NPR's Peter Overby is part of a team of correspondents who have been tracking the money. He's in our studio.

Peter, good morning.

PETER OVERBY: Hi.

INSKEEP: So what's the figure, as best we know?

OVERBY: Four billion dollars.

INSKEEP: Four billion dollars spent in this campaign?

OVERBY: Probably, or close to it.

INSKEEP: There's so many different kinds of spending here. Let's just go through some of the different ways that people spend money on elections. One is just the campaign contributions. You're a congressmen, you ask for a contribution, you get it, it's under certain limits, you can spend it to re-elect yourself. How has that spending changed this year?

OVERBY: It is up 80 percent just from two years ago. Congressional races in 2008 compared to congressional races in 2010 is an 80 percent jump.

INSKEEP: Eighty percent increase, even though the limits on contributions haven't really changed that much, right?

OVERBY: That's right. Yeah, they've changed just a tad.

INSKEEP: Which means that people have gone and found a lot more contributions somewhere.

OVERBY: That's right. Democrats knew they were going to have a tough midterm election and they have been aggressively raising money for two years. The Republicans, they have seen wave after wave of money start coming in as they build momentum.

INSKEEP: Although until very recently, Democrats were ahead, and in fact still are ahead in the totals in this traditional fundraising, right?

OVERBY: Right. But they're not ahead nearly as much as they were two months ago. The fact of the matter is there is usually a huge fall-off from presidential to midterm election. And what you've got here is we're up roughly a billion dollars from the last midterm and we're only a billion below the colossal record that was set in 2008.

INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure I understand what is different then about this election year, because this is a year in which it sounds like all kinds of spending, including spending within the political system, is up. But there was this Supreme Court ruling which affected corporate donations and other kinds of donations. How much of the money is there and how much has that Supreme Court ruling affected what we're seeing?

OVERBY: One of the things that happened was that the Supreme Court let the corporate and union money go into these express advocacy ads - you know, vote for or vote against.

INSKEEP: Okay.

OVERBY: Another thing that happened is nobody changed the disclosure laws, and in fact, the Federal Election Commission created a loophole in the disclosure laws, so we know less about that kind of spending than we did two years ago.

INSKEEP: You know that the money's being spent...

OVERBY: But we don't know where it's coming from. I just looked at a rundown of what are called electioneering ads since October 15th.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

OVERBY: And there are a couple hundred of them that were ordered to the FEC.

INSKEEP: Okay.

OVERBY: Ten percent of them, they disclosed where the money came from; the rest of it was a column of zeros.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the vast majority, there's some group, it's got a name...

OVERBY: We know the group. We know the name. We know how much they spent on the ad. We don't know where they got their money.

INSKEEP: Was it a union? Was it a corporation? Was it a wealthy individual? Was it some combination of this? We have no idea.

OVERBY: Right.

INSKEEP: There is also an additional amount of spending by nonprofit groups, registered in the tax code as nonprofits, and they have spent money in this election season. What happens to them now?

OVERBY: The deal with the nonprofits is most of them are organized as what are called social welfare organizations under the tax law.

INSKEEP: Okay.

OVERBY: They can't spend more than half of their time, energy, money on politics. If they did they'd be political organizations under the tax law and they'd have to disclose.

INSKEEP: Okay. They've just spent millions of dollars on politics.

OVERBY: Right.

INSKEEP: What do they do now?

OVERBY: They do a massive readjustment. And after the election, I think what we're going to see is these groups spending more money just about issues before Congress, you know, more of this call your congressman, tell him whatever. And that potentially is going to change the nature of the legislating process. You know, if you have the intensity and the advertising in legislating that you do in campaign politics, what's it going to look like?

INSKEEP: Peter, thanks very much.

OVERBY: Glad to.

INSKEEP: NPR's Peter Overby.

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