A Lighter Look at Campaign Ads in a Record-Breaking Midterm Race

BY Elizabeth Shell  November 3, 2010 at 2:00 PM EST

Just a few hours ago, polls across the country closed, election races were called, and the most expensive mid-term election cycle in U.S. history came to an end.

And the television and radio airwaves will no longer be deluged with political ads, nor will your mailbox be full of fliers that attempted to inspire (or discourage) your vote one way or another.

Reporters across the country reported on the negativity in many of the ads (including our own Ray Suarez). That negativity has been on the rise: The New York Times reported late last week that this season’s attack ads made up 50 percent of pro-Democratic ads and 56 percent of pro-Republican ads, up from about 30 percent for each in 2004.

In a non-scientific poll, The Washington Post found that while the majority — 51 percent — of users don’t like negative campaigning, they admit that the ads do work.

Young voters, who weren’t expected to repeat the uncharacteristically high turnout they had in 2008, are also turned off by negative ads, said Sara Haile-Mariam, spokesperson for Vote Again 2010, a youth-oriented get out the vote organization.

In response to the negativity, Vote Again hosted a competition for Millennials to create their own ads to encourage their peers to vote. (See the winning submission).

“The hope was to create a positive space and one that really focuses on the issues. The election is seen as partisan food fight,” Haile-Mariam said. “Let young people do something that is substantive — because they’re not seeing that from the candidates.”

As economics and business correspondent Paul Solman discovered in last night’s special election night broadcast, not only is that advertising expensive, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to trace where the political donations are coming from.

Estimates from The Center for Responsive Politics predict the total amount of money spent on this election cycle will top $4 billion- surpassing the 2006 midterm election record by about a billion dollars. Advertising makes up the bulk of that cost — around $3 billion.

Just for fun, let’s put that amount into perspective. The average salary in the U.S. is about $43,000 a year. At that rate, it would take over 93,000 years to earn $4 billion (not including taxes, inflation, cost of living or that the average life span is considerably shorter).

But let’s say you have a cool $4 billion burning a hole in your pocket. Besides a Bugatti Veyron sports car for every family member ($1.7 million each), a few tropical islands (a mere $35 million for a Borneo getaway), and some Picasso originals ($200 million), $4 billion could buy NASA a new space shuttle (roughly $1.7 billion) or put a dent in the $30 billion needed per year to end world hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

If given away philanthropically in a lump sum, it would be the fourth-largest donation in U.S. history.

However, $4 billion would only nick the national debt (which currently stands at well over $13.6 trillion), and would only cover less than half a percent of the $700 billion the government spent on the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Candidates, their financial supporters, and their detractors are deciding today if it was money well spent…