- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

A billion-dollar election: The 2002 election has proved the most expensive midterm in history as candidates, political parties and interest groups raced to spend $996 million before new campaign-finance laws kicked in.

Indeed, the money talked and talked some more purchasing 1.5 million TV ads in pivotal races around the country, according to a study released by the University of Wisconsin yesterday.

Researchers described the phenomenon as "astonishing."

Republicans were not the proverbial big spenders this time, "bucking trends from 2000 and other elections," the study noted. Though the party garnered considerable support from interest groups, Republican House candidates still spent 20 percent less than Democratic opponents did.

Senate Democratic candidates had particularly lavish tastes.

"In competitive U.S. Senate races since the September 11 anniversary, Democratic candidates, interest groups, and the party spent more than their Republican counterparts, even though more competitive races were in states with Republican incumbents," the study noted.

Things got particularly frantic in the weeks before Election Day on Nov. 5, with mud and money flying once the solemn one-year anniversary of September 11 had passed.

Ads, in fact, overwhelmed actual campaign coverage.

A separate study found that TV viewers got four times as many ads than election stories when they sat down to watch the local news.

Both parties spent a combined $582 million on about 900,000 TV spots after the anniversary. Aspiring governors outdid lawmakers, however, spending $420 million of that total.

No one was on their best behavior. Negative campaigning asserted itself after the nation's one-year remembrance of the September 11 attacks.

The study found that 90 percent of the TV ads were positive in tone in the days surrounding the anniversary. By early November, it was mudslinging as usual: less than half of the ads had anything nice to say.

The top five nastiest races were said to be in Colorado's 4th District, New York's 1st District, California's 18th, the Illinois gubernatorial contest and Nevada's 3rd District.

In terms of the number of negative ads and the amount spent on them, Senate races proved the most disagreeable, followed by gubernatorial and House races, the study found.

"There was a notion that September 11 would change politics somehow," said study director Ken Goldstein yesterday. "That didn't happen. And it shouldn't happen. Nice doesn't necessarily mean good, or correct. The majority of these negative ads actually have a fair amount of helpful information in them."

Academics, Mr. Goldstein said, tend to discount the importance of TV campaigns, while political consultants and pundits exaggerate them.

"These ads can affect the margin, and even minimal amounts matter," he said. "And that's where some of these close races were being decided right on that margin."

The United Seniors Association led spending by interest groups at $8.7 million, followed by the AFL-CIO ($3.6 million), Americans for Job Security ($1.5 million), EMILY's List ($1.3 million), Sierra Club ($1.2 million), Florida Education Association ($1.1 million), Michigan Chamber of Commerce ($690,000), Planned Parenthood ($660,000), Club for Growth ($560,000) and the American Medical Association ($550,000).

Saturated with 41,000 TV spots before the election, Boston proved "the busiest market for political advertising," according to the study. Atlanta, Austin, Texas, Houston and Portland, Ore., followed, with about 25,000 ads each.

"As the amount of face time on local and national broadcasts diminishes, political advertising potentially increases the opportunity for candidates to communicate with voters," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"But ads shouldn't be confused with accurate political communication," he added. "They're still trying to sell the voters something."

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