Each election season, little-known political action committees -- and the campaign ads they fund -- assume a central role in American politics. This year, the ostensibly independent committees known as super PACs have raised more money than ever before. Their vaguely patriotic names often disguise their true purpose: spending lots of cash to get certain candidates into power.
So here's a little quiz.
"Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" was created by comedian Stephen Colbert to draw attention to the role of these little-known groups in American democracy.
One thing all those super PACs have in common: Thanks to a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, they can all funnel unlimited money into campaign advertising. That means people and organizations with lots of cash can influence elections more easily than before. And that means certain places in Washington state may have more power than they used to.
Washington's Mega-Influential ZIP Codes. The 10 ZIP codes highlighted in red and blue have donated at least $1 million each to influence this year's federal elections. Click on any area for details. (KUOW analysis of FEC data as of Oct. 15, 2012.)
Cozying Up To 98004
To get at the heart of our system of campaign finance, I went to Cozy Cove. It's a little finger of water on the east side of Lake Washington, between the wealthy peninsulas of Hunts Point and Yarrow Point and just north of Bellevue.
In my kayak, I was a little out of place. Multimillion-dollar mansions line both sides of the cove. Private docks big enough for yachts are as common here as mailboxes in other neighborhoods.
The area around Cozy Cove, and just to its south in Bellevue, is ZIP code 98004. This ZIP has given more money to influence this year's federal elections than any other ZIP code in Washington state -- about $3 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission. No place even comes close to the 98004. It's outpaced every other ZIP code, including the big spenders in Mercer Island, Medina, Seattle's Capitol Hill and Shoreline, by nearly a million dollars or more.
The biggest donor in the 98004 is Michael Darland of Bellevue. The retired tech entrepreneur now owns high-end fly-fishing lodges in Chile. He and his wife have given $250,000 to Freedomworks for America. That's a super PAC associated with the Tea Party movement.
"I believe right now more than ever in my life, and I just turned 70, that my freedoms and liberty's being threatened," Darland says, "by a government that doesn't seem to believe the same sorts of things that I believe the Constitution says."
Darland is like most big donors on the east side of Lake Washington: he's putting his money behind conservative causes. To the west, the big-money ZIP codes in Mercer Island, Seattle and Shoreline favor liberal campaigns by wide margins.
Hey Big Spenders!
Darland is the biggest donor in the state's biggest-spending ZIP code. But he's not the state's biggest campaign donor.
Microsoft co-founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates have each spent more than $3 million to get charter schools legalized through a state ballot measure.
The biggest infusion of personal wealth aimed at getting a candidate elected has come from Ann Wyckoff. She lives in a gated community of multimillion-dollar homes in Shoreline called The Highlands. Since August, the 85-year-old philanthropist has given $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super PAC.
Wyckoff says she likes to stay under the radar; she declined to speak on tape. But she says that she's always supported Democrats.
"If you can, you should give to things you really believe in," Wyckoff says.
Outside Expenditures Skyrocket
In 2008, super PACs and other outside groups spent about $300 million nationwide on advertising and other types of campaigning.
"Now we're expecting a billion dollars to be spent," says Sheila Krumholz, director of the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.
Krumholz says that outside money is on top of the $5 billion spent by candidates and their parties.
We are seeing a lot more advertising. It's more negative, and there's a lot more deception. That's perhaps not surprising, given that these are independent groups. They're less accountable than nearly all other actors in politics in America today because so little is known about how they operate.
Krumholz' group tracks all the money flowing into American politics on its website, opensecrets.org. Or at least all the money that's possible to track.
While super PACs are required to disclose their donors, they often set up separate nonprofit organizations that don't have to say where they got their money.
"There are some problems with super PACs, but on the whole, they are not the concern here," says Sheila Krumholz. "The concern really is their nonprofit arms, which are entirely hidden from the public view in terms of where that money is coming from."
The nonprofit groups' spending nationwide has favored Republicans over Democrats by an 8-to-1 margin.
Michael Darland of Bellevue says he has given money to the nonprofit arm of the Freedomworks for America super PAC, but he declined to say how much.
"I don't disclose what I don't have to," Darland says.
Tilting Toward the Wealthy
Some critics of the role of big money in politics blame the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision for opening the floodgates of special-interest spending. But political scientist Mark Smith of the University of Washington says something else is behind the rising tide of money into political campaigns.
"If you look over a 30-year period, the biggest thing that I think is driving this is just inequality," Smith says. "There's more money at the top, and so there's more money that can slosh around."
With huge sums of money going to both Democrats and Republicans, a lot of the donations may just cancel each other out. The net effect, according to some political scientists, is to tilt the political system toward wealthy donors as a whole.
A Northwestern University survey last year of very wealthy Americans found they were much more concerned about the federal deficit than the rest of the country was.
"The general population at this point is much more concerned about jobs and growth," Mark Smith of UW says. "If you look at the national dialogue in the last couple of years, the deficit has kind of dominated the national conversation. The issue priorities get pushed more toward what people at the top want."
Smith says it's hard to know whether campaign donations themselves tilt the playing field toward the wealthy. He says it could just be that elected officials also tend to be wealthy and they move in the same social circles as their big donors.
"Having said that, if you make money count for more, that makes everything else count for less. So, that is a threat to democracy," Smith says.
Bellevue big donor Michael Darland doesn't buy the criticism that unlimited campaign contributions might have unhealthy effects on our democracy.
I find it amusing that most of the critics and people who worry about these sorts of things, would probably, if they had the money, given other things they say and write about, they would be giving it, too. What they're griping about is they didn't get busy and figure out how to take advantage of this country and its freedoms to also earn great amounts of money.
One irony of all this campaign cash? The money tends to go where it's least effective: high-stakes races where the candidates are already well-known to the public.
In Washington state, Democrats have raised nearly twice as much cash as Republicans for this year's federal elections ($33.7 million vs. $18.6 million), a pattern that goes against the grain. Nationwide, Republicans have raised about 8 percent more than Democrats. According to opensecrets.org, this year's election is the most expensive in the nation's history.