Shatters 2000's $840M: Election ad spending hits record $1.6B

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The 2004 political campaign will be not only the top-spending race in history, but is also set to shatter the stunning $1.6 billion expectations of only four months ago.

As the bruising battle heads into the final week, the political outlay is pushing past the $1.5 billion mark for the year, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNS Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. "This year is off the charts," he said, noting that if spending stays on track, the final tally could exceed his earlier $1.6 billion optimistic projection.

That figure-more than is spent on all sporting goods and toy advertising in America, yet targeted to fewer states-reflects the last-minute entrance of Republican "527" interest groups to presidential campaign spending pioneered by Democratic groups. Only the lack of availability of additional time and a petering out of one California ballot initiative could prevent it from being far more.

Spending comparisons tower over the $840 million spent in 2000-in fact, the $40 million spent this year in Cleveland alone is more than all of Ohio received four years ago.

"We're crying uncle," said David Ianni, general sales manager of Clear Channel's WTAM-AM and WMMS-FM in Cleveland. He said political ads in October accounted for 22% of news-talk WTAM's inventory and the number could top 27% before the campaign is over. He said the station has taken steps to alleviate some of the problem by doubling rates for political ads that aren't from the presidential campaigns themselves. Mr. Ianni said that the increase also reflects the high demand.

National cable has seen politics develop from virtually nothing four years ago into a $25 million business and counting. Local cable operators have done even better; political buys for local cable bought through the operators' national rep firm are exceeding $75 million with an estimated $50 million more bought locally.

Numbers for Hispanic media and urban radio aren't fully in, but there are signs they, too, are up dramatically, said Mr. Tracey.

More than $500 million of the total has been spent on the presidential race since the end of the primaries, about a 150% increase from the about $200 million spent in 2000. Countering the trend of recent presidential elections, the Democrats-not the Republicans-spent the most.

"It's the first time through in a new playbook and it's like the NFL switched rules and all of a sudden we are playing Canadian football," said Mr. Tracey. "There is no parallel. There are over 30 groups who ran ads for Kerry and a dozen for Bush. There are so many moving parts that it's crazy."

It wasn't supposed to be so. Campaign-finance reforms were expected to reduce campaign spending. Instead, donors changed but spending continued, fueled by other campaign-reform changes that doubled the amount an individual could give, and many found loopholes around the rules. There are also strong indications that the issues this year-Iraq and Democratic anger over the Bush victory four years ago-fueled the increase.

getting caught up in a 527

"We realized when we passed campaign-finance reform that we weren't going to get rid of all the money in politics," said Celia Viggo Wexler, director of research for Common Cause. "What we wanted to do was get rid of the big-money donations going to policy makers. Sure, some is going to 527s ... and we are also seeing a lot of money from smaller donors."

The latest spending boost is apparently due to Republicans who, after unsuccessfully seeking to get the Democratic groups' efforts shut down as violating campaign-finance laws, stepped in with their own 527s. Additionally, the Republican National Committee launched a $500,000-a-day push for the last two weeks of the campaign.

The impact of this year's spending on future campaigns is uncertain. Both Congress and the Federal Elections Commission are expected to re-examine rules after the election. Then again, there is a possibility both Democrats and Republicans could have a presidential primary in four years.

contributing: alice z. cuneo

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