Independent spending to influence who wins the White House and congressional races now has surged past the $1 billion mark, an amount unprecedented in American politics.
Outside groups and the political parties have spent just shy of $1.1 billion as of midday Sunday, nearly double the amount those organizations pumped into federal elections in 2008, to fund attack ads, automated calls and mailers, according to a tally by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.
Super PAC spending is driving the increase. Nearly half the money, $507.6 million, comes from super PACs, the new political committees created after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and a follow-up appeals court ruling in 2010. While individuals are barred from donating more than $2,500 directly to a federal candidate for a primary or general elections, super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts to boost favorite politicians.
More money is on the way: Outside groups and parties have spent at the rate of more than $100 million a week since the beginning of October in a final, frenzied attempt to persuade voters. Last week alone, independent spending hit $168 million, according to the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, up from $41.5million during the second week of September, when the general-election campaign began in earnest after the political conventions.
"This is the Wild West," said Shelia Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's time for the showdown and people are going to raise and spend as much as they can right up to Election Day."
Three Republican organizations lead the way: American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS, groups backed by Republican strategist Karl Rove, have spent a combined $134million through noon Sunday, followed by Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by former aides to Mitt Romney at $118.5million. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC aiding President Obama, is in third place at $56.8 million.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for public financing for congressional elections to stem the outside money, a notion that has failed to gain much traction. "If we don't change the role of money in campaigns, we might as well all find a new line of work," Pelosi told a group of reporters recently.
Paul Sherman, of the Institute for Justice, which helped represent the winning side in a key federal case allowing super PACs, says lawmakers should do away with contribution limits to put themselves on equal footing with independent groups.
"The new normal is that people can get together to pool their money to spend as much as they want on political speech," Sherman says. "That's a good thing for American politics."
No states have seen more independent activity than Florida and Ohio, where outside groups and parties have spent more than $49 million in each to sway the White House contests and competitive races for the U.S. Senate, Sunlight's data show.
The presidential candidates and their allies are waging an all-out fight for Ohio's 18 Electoral College votes, and the airwaves in Cleveland have been bombarded with 7,961 TV ads in the first three weeks of October -- more than any other city in the state, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political ads.
Cleveland resident Leah Branstetter has had enough. "Every commercial break has at least one, if not two or three ads, and it's the same kind of music used in low-budget horror films -- designed to make you feel a little bit anxious," said Branstetter, 29, who is studying for a doctorate in musicology. "It gets exhausting."
The ads are "coming from all sides by all groups," said Michael Franz, a Bowdoin College political scientist who serves as co-director of the Wesleyan group. "If you live in a battleground state, you are going to be seeing ads in your sleep."
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