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The 4 Big Numbers To Know In The Midterm Elections


By this time tomorrow, voters in competitive election states may rejoice because they'll get to enjoy some T.V. time, blissfully free of caustic campaign ads. Candidates and political groups spent millions this election cycle trying to sway voters and local T.V. ads are only part of the pie. NPR's money in politics correspondent, Peter Overby, has been tracking the flow of cash throughout the campaign. He's broken the big money down to four big numbers.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: I actually needed a little help with this. So, the big numbers will be presented by Bill Kurtis, judge and scorekeeper for NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me." Bill, the first big number, please.

BILL KURTIS: $3.7 billion.

OVERBY: That's the estimated grand total for House and Senate elections as calculated by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In the national economy, it's not really a huge amount of money.

KURTIS: Well, how much is it, Peter?

OVERBY: Bill, it's as much as the worldwide box office for all 13 Batman movies.


MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred Pennyworth) Endure, Master Wayne.

OVERBY: It would buy the Pentagon 21 new F-35 fighter planes


OVERBY: Or you could use it to send 13,357 high school students through four years at Harvard...


OVERBY: ...And buy their parents a new car to take the kid to college. But this particular 3.7 billion dollars was spent on congressional campaigns - campaigns that have been widely criticized for their invective and empty-headedness. So, Bill, how about the second big number?

KURTIS: $52,000.

OVERBY: That is the median income of households in the United States. Half of all households made less than 52,000 last year. But for the midterm elections, there have been 3,100 donors who gave at least that much. In fact, most of them gave a lot more.

All told, these 3,100 donors have contributed more than half a billion dollars. Topping the list is environmentalist billionaire Tom Steyer. He's been giving to his personal super PAC and a super PAC for Democratic Senate campaigns. Steyer's grand total is our third big number.

KURTIS: $73.7 million.

OVERBY: Going down the donor list, it's a big drop to the second name. Former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has put in $19.5 million. Third is conservative hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer at 9.3 million. There's a trend here. As mega-donors gain political prominence, donors who make small contributions are losing influence. Here's Bob Biersack, an analyst at the Center for Responsive Politics.

BOB BIERSACK: It means that organizations across the political spectrum can conduct their activities with support from, really, a very small part of the population.

OVERBY: And the fourth big number.

KURTIS: 228,489.

OVERBY: That's the number of broadcast T.V. ads and Senate races that were aired by groups that keep their donors' names secret. You could have watched 'round-the-clock Senate ads from August 16th through today without being able to know who financed any of them. And this number doesn't count cable T.V. or radio ads. One secret-money group has concentrated on a single candidate. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition promotes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, mostly by attacking his challenger, Democrat Allison Lundergan Grimes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How could Allison Grimes change Washington? She's already everything that's wrong with it.

OVERBY: The Wesleyan Media Project has been monitoring broadcast ads in the midterms. Travis Ridout, one of the project's directors, says outside groups in the Kentucky Senate race have spent $28 million on broadcast TV.

TRAVIS RIDOUT: And about 5.8 million of that has come from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. That's more than the Grimes campaign itself has spent on political advertising this year.

OVERBY: That's right. The group financed by donors who remain secret out-advertised the Democratic candidate. And Kentucky wasn't even this year's most expensive Senate race. With thanks to Bill Kurtis of "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me..."

KURTIS: You're welcome, Peter.

OVERBY: ...I'm Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.