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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

More now on the unprecedented role that outside money is playing in this election year. Supposedly independent groups are raising and spending millions of dollars on behalf of candidates across the country. The groups buy ads, the majority of which are negative, and pro-Republican ads have overwhelmingly outnumbered those backing Democrats.

NPR's Don Gonyea traveled to Iowa to see what voters think about the advertising and about the power of outside money.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's not even summer yet, the dust from the primaries has barely settled, but in battleground states, things seem especially intense already this election season. Just ask 27-year-old Anders Dovery from Slater, Iowa.

ANDERS DOVERY: The campaign, and did it ever stop?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: In Iowa, you get the caucuses in January, then it's usually pretty quiet until Labor Day or so. But last month alone, in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, there were more than 250 TV ads promoting President Obama and nearly the same amount for Mitt Romney according to numbers compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project. Voter Brian Dolezal runs a business in Cedar Rapids.

BRIAN DOLEZAL: Normally we kind of get some time off. And lately, it's been constant from - soon as one election's done, you start hearing about the next one already.

GONYEA: The big change this year is the rise of outside advocacy groups. Such groups are paying for most of the ads, often with contributions from wealthy, anonymous donors. Those Iowa TV spots from last month, just over half of the pro-Obama ads were official campaign spots. While none of the Romney ads were. All of them came from an outside group. Such ads sound and look like any other campaign spot, and that's the point. Here's the one attacking the president.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Obama's agenda promised so much.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We must help the millions of homeowners who are facing foreclosure.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Promise broken.

GONYEA: And there's this one attacking Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Now Romney's proposing a huge new $150,000 tax cut for the wealthiest one percent while cutting Medicare and education for us.

GONYEA: That pro-Obama ad is from Priorities USA Action. The pro-Romney ad is from Crossroads GPS, a group cofounded by Republican strategist Karl Rove. The only way to tell who paid for any given ad is to pay close attention all the way to the very end.

It's easy for the average voter to be confused, says Professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Even if you want to wait till the end of the ad and view who they're sponsored by, just visually, even with a high-def television, it's sometimes very hard to read that fine print. And you've got to remember to do it.

GONYEA: In two days interviewing voters in Iowa, no one said this big increase in outside money, much of it from anonymous donors, is a good thing. Still, some, like 42-year-old John Olson from Ankeny, say they're able to tune it out so far.

JOHN OLSON: I haven't seen a whole lot of it. I actually, strangely enough, have been watching less TV. So I have not seen a whole lot of those ads yet.

GONYEA: But Olson is troubled by what the influx of cash means. So, too, is Anders Dovery. You heard his voice at the beginning of this story. Dovery is a teacher.

DOVERY: I teach high school students. And I teach them and tell them they have a voice in this process. And more and more, I feel like I'm telling them a lie. I tell them every day, you need to have an opinion, an informed opinion. You need to act on it. And more and more, it seems like I'm telling them that for nothing.

GONYEA: In the city of Urbandale, Dean Kleckner a conservative Republican and retired farmer also says the current system doesn't work. His solution: No limits on spending or contributions. But he says they should go directly to political parties or to candidates, and there should be full disclosure.

DEAN KLECKNER: So let's not limit the amount. But let's say they have to report it immediately or within a reasonable amount of time, and let them people make up their own minds about whether that person is being influenced by the money or not.

GONYEA: Now, voters have, for many, many years, complained about the role of money in U.S. elections, so that's nothing new. But even if the economy remains the big issue this year, outside cash is something voters are increasingly aware of and they are talking about it. Don Gonyea NPR News

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