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Who’s the Biggest Outside Political Spender of Them All?

Critics of the media will allege that The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have both betrayed their slants today, publishing stories about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, respectively, each claiming its target to be this election cycle’s top outside spender.

The Times’ piece digs into corporate tax filings and finds that while the Chamber claims 300,000 members, nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors — and many of those large donations coincided with lobbying or political campaigns that appeared to benefit those donors. Its accompanying graphic, which calls the Chamber “The Top Non-Party Spender,” says the Chamber has thus far spent over $21 million on this election cycle — more than any group save three of the traditional political party committees.

The Journal’s piece, for its part, says that AFSCME is spending a total of $87.5 million on the midterm elections following a decision by the union — made possible by Citizens United — to tap its membership dues to pay for $17 million worth of ads backing Democrats. The article observes that while the political debate and the public’s attention have thus far largely focused on the advertising buys of Republican-backing groups, unions have flown partly under the radar because they traditionally spend much of their cash on other forms of political activities, like get-out-the-vote efforts. Its graphic shows AFSCME’s total edging out the Chamber’s $75 million goal and American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS’s $65 million pledge.

Neither paper’s claim is wrong, per se — they’re simply measuring different things. The Times has attempted to tabulate money that’s been spent (though other databases, like the one at the Sunlight Foundation, suggest that the Times’ figures might be too low), while the Journal is comparing money that groups have pledged to spend. There’s no reason that these groups would lie, of course, but there exists a convoluted logic in campaign finance in which many groups try to both downplay and talk up their importance. “We’re the big dog,” Larry Scanlon, the head of AFSCME’s political operations, couldn’t help telling the Journal. “But we don’t like to brag.”

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