Outside of the political parties themselves, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the nation's biggest campaign spender. That's according to the lead story in this morning's New York Times.
But according to the lead story in this morning's Wall Street Journal, the biggest spender is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Neither paper counted wrong; they just used different methods. And the vastly different numbers they came up with is a reminder of the huge amounts of political spending that goes unreported by big advocacy groups.
The NYT says the Chamber has spent $21 million during the current election cycle, most of it to attack Democrats. The WSJ comes up with a much higher figure for Chamber spending — $75 million.
The public employees' union, which tends to back Democrats, is spending even more: $87.5 million, according to the WSJ. But the union doesn't even finish in the top 10 on the NYT's list.
Why did the NYT and the WSJ come up with such different results? I called Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, to find out.
The NYT used the figures the groups have reported to the Federal Election Commission.
The WSJ used those figures, plus what the groups plan to spend in the remaining days before the election, plus estimates for spending that doesn't have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission.
And that last figure — spending that doesn't have to be reported — is huge.
When outside groups aren't broadcasting ads right before the election, and when they aren't directly calling on people to vote for or against a particular candidate, they don't have to report it.
So, for example, the Chamber of Commerce could pay for a mass mailing saying that a particular candidate supports business. Or a union could pay people to go door-to-door, telling people which candidate supports union workers.
And, as long as they don't advocate voting for or against the candidates, none of that would have to be reported as campaign spending.