One of the big story lines in this year's presidential election is the unprecedented role of outside money. Millions are being raised and spent by groups that back one candidate or another.
Those groups are buying advertisements, often to launch attacks on the candidates they don't like. It's an area where pro-Republican ads have overwhelmingly outnumbered those backing Democrats.
One place these ads are hard to miss is in Iowa.
It's not even summer yet, and the dust from the primaries has barely settled. But in battleground states, things seem especially intense already this election season.
Just ask 27-year-old Anders Dovre from Slater, Iowa. "The campaign? Did it ever stop?"
Typically in Iowa, you get the caucuses in January, and then it's usually pretty quiet until Labor Day or so. But last month alone, in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, there were more than 250 TV ads promoting President Obama, and nearly the same amount for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to numbers compiled by the Wesleyan Media Project.
"Normally, we kind of get some time off," says voter Bryan Dolezal, who runs a business in Cedar Rapids. "Lately it's been constant. [As] soon as one election's done, you start hearing about the next one already."
The big change this year is the rise of the outside advocacy groups, which are paying for most of the ads — often with contributions from wealthy, anonymous donors.
In the Iowa TV spots last month, just over half of the pro-Obama ads were official campaign spots, while none of the Romney ads were. All of them came from an outside group.
Such ads sound and look like any other campaign spot — and that's the point.
An ad attacking the president from Crossroads GPS, a group co-founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, says: "President Obama's agenda promised so much," before ticking off promises it says he's broken.
Meanwhile, a pro-Obama ad from the superPAC Priorities USA Action, hits Romney, saying: "Romney's proposing a huge new $150,000 tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent, while cutting Medicare and education for us."
The only way to tell who paid for any given ad is to pay close attention all the way to the very end. It's easy for the average voter to be confused, says Dennis Goldford, a professor at Drake University.
"Even if you want to wait till the end of the ad and view who they're sponsored by, just visually, even with a high-def television, it's sometimes very hard to read that fine print, and you've got to remember to do it," Goldford says.
In two days interviewing voters in Iowa, no one said this big increase in outside money, much of it from anonymous donors, is a good thing. Still, some, like John Olson, 42, from Ankeny, say they have been able to tune it out so far.
"I haven't seen a whole lot of it," he says. "I actually, strangely enough, have been watching less TV. So I have not seen a whole lot of those ads yet."
But Olson is troubled by what the influx of cash means. So too is Dovre, the 27-year-old from Slater, who is a high school teacher.
"I teach them and tell them they have a voice in this process, and more and more I feel like I'm telling them a lie," he says. "I tell them every day you need to have an opinion — an informed opinion — and you need to act on it. And more and more, it seems like I'm telling them that for nothing."
In the city of Urbandale, Dean Kleckner, a conservative Republican and retired farmer, also says the current system doesn't work. His solution? No limits on spending or contributions, but he says they should go directly to political parties or to candidates, and there should be full disclosure.
"So let's not limit the amount, but let's say they have to report it immediately or within a reasonable amount of time, and let people make up their own minds about whether that person is being influenced by the money or not," Kleckner says.
Now, voters have for many, many years complained about the role of money in U.S. elections. So that's nothing new.
But even if the economy remains the big issue this year, outside cash is something many voters are increasingly aware of — and they are talking about it.
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