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Tracking the campaign money

Dave Levinthal

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: This is the first election cycle since Citizens United, the Supreme Court's ruling earlier this year that unions and companies can spend as much as they want on almost anything they want in politics. And only rarely do they have to disclose where they're getting the money from. There were competing stories in a couple of big papers today. In the New York Times on corporate contributions to the Chamber of Commerce. Also, the Wall Street Journal on big money union spending. To help sort out what all that money might actually be delivering in terms of votes in politics, we've got Dave Levinthal on the line from the Center for Responsive Politics. Dave, good to have you with us.

Dave Levinthal: Great to be with you.

Ryssdal: So there were these competing stories today in the Journal and the New York Times looking at the source of a lot of this external money in politics this election cycle. I'm wondering though what the real story is, whether it's amounts or anonymity?

Levinthal: It's a story of both. And we can show you lots of examples of organizations coming in and spending hard dollars on advertisements, radio, TV, newspapers, and we are seeing an unprecedented amount of money from outside groups coming into Congressional elections and spending -- in some cases, millions of dollars for some single Congressional races. But a lot of this money, we simply don't know where it's coming from. We know that organizations are spending it. We know that groups are definitely using it for political purposes. But if you ask the question, well, who are the source donors? Nobody can give you an answer, based on the way that disclosure laws in the United States now read.

Ryssdal: There is a definition issue here, right? We are talking specifically about outside groups, that is not political campaigns, not the parties, but organizations, in theory, external to the political structure.

Levinthal: We are talking about a number of groups that are spending millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars in messaging and independent expenditures that have no direct relation to a political party. Now some of these groups you recognize the name very easily: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Service Employees International Union. But others you don't necessarily know a whole lot about: American Crossroads GPS, Common Sense 10. Sometimes you get these organizations that have very vague or innocuous-sounding names, but yet, at the end of the day, you still don't know at all about truly who is fueling and funding the political efforts that these organizations are going forward with.

Ryssdal: Correlate money and winning for me, can you?

Levinthal: Oftentimes it's a difficult thing to do. However, what we have found is that the candidates who are spending millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars of their own money typically lose. You may or may not have heard of Jeff Green, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Florida. He spent at the end of the day probably upwards of $20 million for an effort in which he was obliterated by U.S Representative Kendrick Meek in a Democratic primary. He didn't even have a chance to advance to the general election. And we see with Meg Whitman in California running for governor, we see Linda McMahon running for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, spending incredible, 8-, even 9-figure sums, with Meg Whitman. Yet, they are having a difficult time in the polls. So, in this one particular instance, money does not necessarily equal victory.

Ryssdal: We're still a long way from 2012, but you have to believe it only gets worse, I suppose, from here.

Levinthal: You think it's crazy now? Wait two years. Wait a year, when presidential candidates, certainly on the Republican side, are going to be doing just this for all the primary and caucuses that they're going to be running in. Congress certainly has the opportunity to come and pass a law that could force disclosure in one regard or another. And they did try this year, with a bill called the Disclose Act. It ultimately stalled in the Senate. But, absent that, you're looking at a campaign finance landscape that has been incredibly changed and something that is absolutely going to go forward in ways that perhaps we can't even imagine right now.

Ryssdal: Dave Levinthal, he edits the Open Secrets blog at the Center for Responsive Politics. Dave, thanks a lot.

Levinthal: Thank you.

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