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It might be hard to believe after the political spend-a-thon that was the 2008 presidential contest, but this year's elections are on track to set a record for campaign spending. One big reason is a surge in independent groups.
As NPR's Peter Overby reports, this year may set another record, too, in money from secret donors.
PETER OVERBY: It used to be a new high watermark for campaign spending was set each election cycle, a sort of zigzag pattern: A constantly rising sum for the presidential election and a smaller but constantly rising sum for the less costly midterm elections. This year, there's no zigzag.
Kip Cassino is the vice president of research at the media analysis group Borrell Associates. He says that after the astronomical sums of cash thrown into the 2008 campaign, this year everyones pumping in even more.
Mr. KIP CASSINO (Vice President, Borrell Associates): By about 10 to 15 percent. Unlike a lot of industries in the United States right now, which are seeing some downturns, political spending is absolutely a growth industry.
OVERBY: Fueling it, he says, is corporate money; dollars liberated by the Supreme Court when it ruled that corporations and unions can be unrestrained in their campaign spending. Cassino says corporate funds probably account for a 10 percent jump in advertising. And, of course, those advertisements are almost always negative.
Evan Tracey is the president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.
Mr. EVAN TRACEY (President, Campaign Media Analysis Group): The unwritten charter of these groups is to really be disruptive and try and go in there and turn a race on its head or put a candidate on the defense. And by that nature, most of those ads that they're going to run this fall are going to be negative ads.
OVERBY: This includes well-established political players. The labor unions, for instance, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and it includes a crop of new big-budget groups, such as American Crossroads. It was organized by some of the Republican Party's top strategists, including Karl Rove.
But not every operator has such a high profile. Again, Evan Tracey.
Mr. TRACEY: We have a lot of little individual state-type groups that are starting to show up in some of the bigger races. And I think they're going to play a much larger role in the fall.
OVERBY: One of these is Americans for New Leadership. It's based in Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. And it just spent $70,000 airing this ad about him.
(Soundbite of a political ad)
Unidentified Man: Wrong on his votes. Wrong in his record. Wrong for Nevada. Americans for New Leadership is responsible for the content of this ad.
OVERBY: And while Americans for New Leadership is an example of new groups flying under the radar, it's also an example of something else: Secrecy. The group says it had already spent $300,000 on Reid. It hasn't disclosed where any of that money came from. In fact, the trend that's growing even faster than attack ads is not revealing who's financing them.
Craig Holman is with the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen.
Dr. CRAIG HOLMAN (Legislative Representative, Public Citizen): In 2004 and 2006, literally 100 percent of the groups were fully complying with the disclosure laws. Today, most groups do not disclose where they're getting their money from.
OVERBY: The key element here isn't the Supreme Court. In its ruling on corporate money, it called for transparency. But the Federal Election Commission drastically undercut the rules on disclosure. It said that money designated for whats called Electioneering Messages has to be made public but other contributions don't.
Holman explains what a donor would have to do before his or her identity would have to be disclosed.
Dr. HOLMAN: You would have to designate: Im giving $100,000 to pay for a campaign ad to air in Ohio that targets a specific senator at such-and-such a time.
OVERBY: But if you write that $100,000 check without earmarking that way, we'll never know who you are.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.