Hey, Big Spenders!

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You may have noticed that the front pages of today’s New York Times and Wall Street Journal seem to paint rather different portraits of who’s spending what in the midterm election campaign. According to the Journal, the giant public-employee union AFSCME (or “the bureaucrats union,” as an email just in from a conservative group puts it) now leads all independent groups in their campaign output. But according to a graphic in the Times, AFSCME doesn’t even make the top 10. As Jesse Zwick explains, the variance is partly due to different ways of measuring spending. The Times is looking at money already spent through October 18 and tabulated by sources like the Federal Election Commission. The Journal looked at spending pledges, which includes money the various groups expect to have spent when all is said and done.

A spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce has already told me that the Times‘ figure of $21.1 million spent understates the Chamber’s spending total to date by $7 million. That’s still a surprisingly low figure given that the Chamber has pledged to spend $75 million in this campaign. It would leave them with nearly $50 million to get out the door in the election’s final two weeks–which I suppose is theoretically possible but does raise the question of whether the Chamber (and perhaps other groups vying for attention and clout in this cycle) have been inflating their financial punching weight. I’ve asked whether the Chamber is still on track to reach its spending goal and will update if and when I get an answer.

And what about AFSCME? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the union is the tenth-biggest spender to date, at a little over $10 million. That’s small fraction of the $87.5 million the Journal says AFSCME will have spent by election day. But as Ben Smith notes, such groups only have to report their spending on public communications (like television ads) to the FEC on a regular basis. And unions in particular spend a large chunk of their political budget on so-called member-to-member communications and voter mobilization efforts which don’t have to be disclosed during a campaign.

Overall, then, I would say that the Journal story presents a more accurate picture of who’s spending big money. Throw in another $84 million from other big liberal unions, by the Journal‘s tally, and labor will spend at least $171 million. Which means that Democrats won’t be totally swamped by those conservative groups orchestrated by the likes of Karl Rove, Ed Gillespie and Haley Barbour. (By the Journal‘s tally, the top conservative groups clock in at $130 million–although that doesn’t count Barbour’s Republican Governors Association, which may outspend its Democratic equivalent by tens of millions of dollars in state house races nationwide.)

But there are some important caveats to note here. One is that Democrats say union spending totals can deliver less than meets the eye because so much of it involves member-to-member activity and get-out-the-vote efforts, important priorities to be sure, but not ones that serve the critical battle of the television airwaves. Some Democrats also consider union advertising less helpful than that of other outside groups with a purely partisan agenda because union priorities–say, opposing public employee layoffs–aren’t always an ideal fit for a Democratic candidate in a particular area.

Finally, and most importantly, the real objection of campaign finance reformers about the conservative groups is that they are fueled by anonymous donations. It’s no secret where union money comes from: rank-and-file workers who pay modest annual dues. When you see an AFSCME ad, you know it’s not carrying water for one particular corporation or, say, a Texas housing mogul. When you see a Chamber of Commerce ad, you do know that it represents corporate money. But you don’t know whether it’s the product of 100 donations from mid-sized businesses or, perhaps a lone $5 million check from an energy or insurance company. And that’s the question at the core of the current debate about the avalanche of independent-group spending in this election: Does the public have the right to know where, exactly, the money is coming from?