Political spending races toward record $5.3B

WASHINGTON -- The campaign to elect a new president and members of Congress is on pace to hit an unprecedented $5.3 billion, the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics said Wednesday.

The money raised and spent by candidates, parties and outside groups on campaigning, advertising, conventions and other political activities in this election has shattered records.

But the total, while an eye-popping figure, pales compared with other spending. For example, it's less than the nearly $6 billion the National Retail Federation estimates Americans will shell out for Halloween next week.

The cost of the presidential race alone — a record $2.4 billion — is less than the $2.6 billion Coca-Cola spent on advertising in 2006. The old record for White House campaign spending was $1.6 billion, set in 2004.

"This is a relatively small investment when you consider all the things that are far less important but on which we spend far more money," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director. "But in terms of political finance, these numbers are staggering."

All White House contenders have collected $1.5 billion in contributions since fundraising formally kicked off in January 2007. That's nearly double the haul of presidential candidates four years ago.

"The jury is out on whether all this spending is effective," said Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official and a campaign-finance expert. "There's so much money flooding the airwaves that there's a real question as to whether or not it's moved voters."

Other trends:

• The economy might be in meltdown, but employees in finance, insurance and real estate companies dominate political giving, contributing more than $370 million. Employees at Goldman Sachs and the company's political action committee top the corporate-giving list with $5 million, the center found.

• Democrats, who have outraised Republicans this election season, are on track to collect nearly $6 out of every $10 raised. Four years ago, the party split was about even.

• Outside political groups, known as 527s for the section of the tax code under which they operate, play a smaller role. The groups that focus on federal races have reported $424 million in fundraising to the IRS, a 12% decrease from 2004.

This year's heavy spending means voters in hotly contested states are inundated.

Carmen Cabrera, who runs a general store in Asheville, N.C., is overwhelmed. Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are campaigning hard there for the White House. "Every other commercial is about politics," she said. " I'll be glad when it's all over."