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The $1.2 billion (and counting) of 2014 US political spending, in charts

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., left, and Republican candidate for Senate Thom Tillis participate during a live televised debate at UNC-TV studios in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014.
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Debating skills are optional. A significant war chest isn’t.
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s just over a month to go before the 2014 US elections, and that means candidates and their allies will unload a blitz of last-minute spending—especially to advertise in contested districts—in an election season that already has cost at least $1.2 billion. Where does the money come from and why does it matter?

What’s at stake

There will be plenty on the ballot this year, but the most important result to watch for is whether the Republican party will take control of the Senate away from president Barack Obama’s Democratic party. Republican control would make it much harder for the president to pursue his agenda or resist Republican proposals, likely cementing America’s policy gridlock through the 2016 presidential election.

There are a number of organizations with models * to assess the likelihood of this result. Remember, these numbers don’t represent public opinion, but the odds:

It doesn’t look good for the Democrats, does it? They face two challenges: One, only a third of the Senate’s seats are up for election (another third will be contested two years from now and the rest four years from now) and this year’s slate features states with structural advantages for Republicans. Second, a slow-recovering economy has failed to generate an improved standard of living for many Americans, and the lack of a meaningful response from Washington has soured attitudes toward incumbent politicians.

The question facing Senate Democrats is whether, in the nine Senate races that are expected to be competitive, a well-run campaign with compelling advertisements and an efficient get-out-the-vote operation can shift the outcome enough to protect a bare majority, especially as Republicans seek to capitalize on their opportunity.

The big nine: North Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, Colorado, Louisiana, Alaska, and Arkansas

Party on, dudes

The first line of spending comes from the candidates: The average active Senate campaign in 2014—defined as spending more than $100,000—has spent $3.5 million so far this cycle and raised $5 million, according to Federal Election Committee data collected by the Sunlight Foundation.

Besides the fundraising done by the candidates, their parties can aid them through two different structures: Committees that can work with candidates and spend money on organizing, and so-called “independent expenditure” committees that can spend money on ads as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. By the fundraising metric, the Democrats may have hope; the graphic below shows Democratic party committees have out-raised and out-spent their Republican opponents so far this election cycle:

It may surprise some that the party that most supports limits on campaign contributions is doing the best job raking them in, but there are key reasons: One is that Democrats still control two branches of government, and with influence comes financing from those interested in sharing in it. Another is that Democrats appear to have an advantage among small donors, as recent analysis by National Journal showed, which helps balance out the tendency of wealthier donors to support Republicans.

What about independent expenditures?

But the partisan advantage is likely overstated: Beyond candidates and their parties, there is a third category of spender in this political battle, made up of independent political action committees, nonprofits, unions, and businesses. The chart below shows the average spending by these groups, per Senate race this cycle, and here again Democrats appear to have an edge:

But these statistics can be especially deceiving, because recent changes in campaign finance law allow large political organizations to spend more money influencing elections without disclosing their activities. Take Americans for Prosperity, a major conservative political organization that is technically a social welfare nonprofit. It has disclosed $400,000 in spending to the FEC, the source of the figure above. But it also has spent some $50 million on advertising in the same period, according to a spokesperson. Similarly, Crossroads GPS, another conservative organization, and the Chamber of Commerce, a business trade group that disproportionately finances Republicans, have spent $14 million and $7 million, respectively, on advertising that was not reported to the FEC.

Where the money comes from

Here’s a glance at the top 15 donors to candidates and political committees, by industry:

The biggest source of money: retirees—always a good target for fundraisers, since they are wealthier on average and have more free time to care about things like politics—followed by the finance sector, lawyers and law firms, and the real estate industry. Notice, too, that two big sources of contributions are donations from one candidate or political action committee to another, and that environmentalists give more than lobbyists. Labor unions aren’t the big givers they used to be, coming in 19th on this list and not making the chart. And, of course, organizations that don’t disclose their donors, like Americans for Prosperity, don’t contribute to the data behind this list.

Into the home stretch

With just a month to go, much of the end-game already is set, at least from a spending perspective: Television advertising time is largely reserved in advance, and investments in get-out-the-vote efforts generally have been committed already at this point in the campaign. Execution, then, becomes paramount. Democrats are taking solace in the realization that the recent changes in campaign finance law that made unlimited secret spending possible also have made it diffuse, leading major donors who might have given to a coordinated party committee in the past to start making their own ads. But political scientists will tell you that, while advertising can make a difference in certain situations, the state of the economy and the electorate’s partisan preferences are far stronger indicators of who will win office.

* The trend in wonkier political coverage has given us a number of competing models that combine public opinion polling, historical election results, economic conditions, and various other factors to produce the probabilities of electoral outcomes. Check them out at FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post.

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