ProPublica has a story up this morning with an interesting chart showing spending on TV political ads so far this year. They aggregated spending by three categories of entity: political parties, super PACs, and 501(c)(4) non-profits. Super PACs may not make contributions to candidates or political parties, but can engage in unlimited independent spending. 501(c)(4) non-profits are organizations whose primary purpose must promote social welfare for the community as a whole. Such a purpose may be educational in nature. Broadly speaking, 501(c)(4) corporations can lobby for specific legislation, but can't promote either candidates or parties. OTOH, they can certainly attack candidates by disclosing information about them. This past week, Crossroads GPS announced a new television ad buy in Nevada that accuses Representative Shelley Berkley of a pattern of unethical behavior. Unlike political parties and super PACs, 501(c)(4) corporations are not required to identify their donors.
Broad observations... It's going to be a long, negative election season. Very large amounts of money are flowing into organizations whose message will, because of the constraints under which they operate, be negative. The 501(c)(4) spending thus far is dominated by conservative messages; Crossroads GPS was created by Karl Rove and Americans for Prosperity is generally associated with the Tea Party movement. It appears there are people with lots of money even during difficult economic times who wish to support a conservative message but remain anonymous while doing so. I can think of good reasons for that, such as avoiding the flood of people looking for contributions once word got out that I could afford to make a large donation. I fear that the reasons are not that good, as in voters will be disinclined to support my cause if they know that I'm the one behind the message. To pick an issue like that, I may firmly believe that when people die, their assets should pass to their heirs without any tax. But it looks bad if I'm spending millions to push that idea if I myself will benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions when Mom dies. (That's just a hypothetical -- Mom is not leaving me hundreds of millions of dollars when she dies.)
I have the dubious pleasure of living in a Denver suburb where: (1) it's in a swing state for the presidential election; (2) it's in a competitive district for the US Representative race; (3) it's a competitive district for the state representative race; and (4) it's a competitive district for the state Senate seat, and that seat is up for election this year. I am not looking forward to the next three months. I have set up a box where I can throw the (mostly unread) campaign and "educational" material that I receive this year. I have a bet with myself that it will total more than 10 pounds of glossy brochures by election day -- at least it can be recycled. I've lost track of the number of recorded phone messages pushing one position or another, or asking me to answer some questions, I've received. I'm considering giving up TV and radio for the duration.