What campaign funding trends will carry over to 2016?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every election year, more and more money is spent on political campaigns. 2014 has been no different.

"NewsHour" political director Domenico Montanaro looks into just how much was spent and where it went, but he starts with how many people actually cast a vote.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Fewer people voted in last week's midterm elections than in a very long time. Just 36 percent of voters went to the polls, the lowest since 1942.

Voters back then had a pretty good excuse. Many of them were fighting in a World War. In this election, though, there was one group paying close attention, big-money donors. More money was spent on these congressional elections than ever before, $4 billion. And estimates show there's about $200 million out there in so-called dark money that goes unreported.

Despite spending hitting record levels, the number of people giving money went down. That's the first time that's happened in at least a quarter-century. Fewer donors and more money means more people with deep pockets participating in the system.

And so where and how was the money spent? Much of it went to television ads. More than a billion dollars was spent on TV ads, with almost half going to just 10 Senate races. The most money was spent in North Carolina with its hotly contested Senate race, won by Republican Thom Tillis, who ousted incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan.

It was the one state where Democrats actually outspent Republicans on the air. In the nine others, Republicans had the edge. Overall, $113 million was spent in North Carolina, nearly $100 million in Colorado, and $85 million in Iowa. All three were considered Democratic firewall states, places Democrats said, if they won, they'd hold the Senate. They were outspent in two of them and lost all three.

And in all of them, outside groups spent far more than the campaigns. There's another way to look at these numbers. How much was spent per voter? Alaska, with its high-profile Senate and governor's races, tops the charts. More than a $120 was spent per voter in the land of the midnight sun, where they are still counting votes. Both the Senate and governor's races have not yet been called.

So why does money matter? Sure, it's the most ever spent on a midterm. But that, by itself, doesn't tell us much. Consider this — 94 percent of the biggest spenders in House races won. And for the Senate, it was 82 percent. That makes who spends the most a pretty good predictor of who is going to win.

Domenico Montanaro, "PBS NewsHour."

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the impact of money in this year's election and how it could expand in the next presidential race, we are joined by Matea Gold of The Washington Post.

Welcome back to the program.

MATEA GOLD, The Washington Post: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So,  mind-boggling amount of money. Matea, you have now had a few days to look through the data and how much was spent and so forth.

But tell us what — you were telling one of the things you noticed, that the Democrats, even though they lost so many races, were able to raise more money this cycle.

MATEA GOLD: Sure.

This is a really big story that's part of the 2014 race. We really saw Democrats engaged in the big money super PAC world in a way they hadn't in 2010 or 2012. There was a lot of ambivalence and reluctance on the part of Democratic donors to give these unlimited sums. A lot of them just felt like the whole system was broken and they didn't want to participate.

But after 2012, where I think saw the impacts that super PACs could have, they jumped in, in a big way. And so Senate Majority PAC, which was a super PAC advised and led by top advisers to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, started aggressively raising money early in the cycle. In end, the super PAC and an allied nonprofit were able to put $60 million into these key Senate races.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how did you see the money being spent? I mean, we hear so much about the TV ads. Is that where it was and was that seen to be the most effective place?

MATEA GOLD: Clearly, a huge share of the money went into television ads.

But we saw on the right a really interesting development, in which more and more conservative groups plowed their resources into new forms of reaching voters. So they engaged in opposition research really early in the cycle. They started investing in field, ground operations to reach voters. They started investing in more data efforts to try to consolidate their information about voters.

And a lot of this was being done at the direction of donors, who really were disappointed with the return they got on their investment on 2012, when they spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try to eject President Obama from the White House unsuccessfully.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're talking to people in both parties obviously and people on the outside. And we have talked a lot about how much money was raised on the outside.

What do you see as the lessons being taken place from all the players here about what they need to do two years from now in the presidential cycle?

MATEA GOLD: Well, I think what is clear, we're going to see two trends develop.

One is that single-candidate super PACs became de rigueur in this race. And so we saw that at a presidential level in 2012. Now pretty much every competitive congressional race is going to have single-candidate super PACs. That means that your friends and family can write unlimited sums of money to give your super PAC just to help get you elected.

And on the presidential front, we already see a huge infrastructure in place, Judy, for Hillary Clinton, who has not even announced yet. but there is already a super PAC poised to run ads for her. There's an opposition research group.

The Republicans have noticed this. They are already working to try to form their own infrastructure to compete with that. So, I think if anything the outside groups are going to become even more of a sense of driving the action in the coming years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Matea Gold with The Washington Post, the woman who walks around with a calculator, thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MATEA GOLD: My pleasure.

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