Outside Money and the Elections

The Democrats are bracing for big losses in next week’s election. While the Democrats may, as Nate Silver argues, still have some modest chance of retaining both houses of Congress, Republicans have already started to prepare an agenda for next year. But in the end this election may be remembered for something else: the unprecedented amount of outside money spent on political advertising.

Dan Eggen reports that according the Center for Responsive Politics all told campaigns, political parties, and outside interest groups may spend a record $4 billion on this year’s election. Outside interest groups have raised at least $400 million of that money. Outside spending may even eclipse spending by the political parties themselves. Thanks to new campaign finance rules, most of that money was donated anonymously. But it appears to be coming largely from very wealthy donors and large corporations. And it’s largely going to support conservative candidates and conservative causes. According to Media Matters, that money bought almost 100,000 conservative television ads since August 1—and 18,000 in the last week alone.

Amanda Terkel reports that some of this money is being funneled through one-person political action committees set up to circumvent the rules governing political contributions. Concerned Citizens for a Working America and Taxpayers Against Earmarks, for example, appear to consist of just a single wealthy concerned citizen and a single wealthy taxpayer respectively. T.W. Farnam points out that another portion of this money comes from companies that received bailout money, including some that still owe money to the government. In other words, major beneficiaries of the bailout—who were happy to take government money but oppose future government regulations—have decided to use their bailout money to donate to the party that opposed the bailout instead of paying the government back.

Polls show that the idea of all this anonymous political spending is unpopular. But it’s not clear that will do the Democrats much good in the upcoming election. If the Democrats do lose big in the election, the economy—and not all this outside cash—will be the main reason. You can't simply buy an election. But money does allow interest groups to spread misleading or downright false claims their opponents don’t have the resources to refute. And it can make a big difference. Big donors certainly think they’re getting something the money they’re spending. And they’re certainly going to expect something in return for their generosity.

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