Yet given the current tax law, it makes good financial sense, campaign finance experts say, for these groups to continue to advocate for a particular policy position, rather than throw in their lot with a particular candidate. "As long as you're still engaged in issue advocacy, you're not making the expenditure that might [violate nonprofit] status," says Allison Hayward, the vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics.
In 2006, electioneering communications constituted around 5 percent of all outside spending on communications, but in 2010 they account for around 17 percent. This makes 2010 campaign ledgers (and the public airwaves) look more like a presidential election year than a midterm election. In 2004 and 2008, electioneering ads accounted for around 20 percent of all campaign communication spending.
This year's electioneering communication spending patterns over time also look more like that of 2004 and 2008 than that of the 2006 midterm election. This year, as in 2004 and 2008, these ads have been a constant presence, with a relentless stream of ads since April (though there has been an uptick as November approaches). In 2006, the FEC recorded only 12 electioneering communications prior to September 1. This year, there were 87.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a major reason that electioneering communication spending is up this year. Of the $74.4 million spent thus far on electioneering communications, $32 million—nearly 43 percent—has been spent by the chamber, according to the FEC. The overwhelming majority of those ads either backed conservative or Republican candidates or attacked Democrats.
Just getting warmed up. In the end, though, November is only a trial run for the bigger prize: the 2012 presidential elections. Just as the Obama administration leveraged its own database of supporters to aid in the passage of healthcare and banking reform legislation—a novel mobilization for a candidate already elected—so too will the groups that now dominate the midterms continue to push their issues. Several were also important players in the healthcare debate, for example. Given the potency of these groups and their advertising, political experts note, the era of the endless campaign is well under way.