WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Forget the struggling economy. There's one U.S. industry -- Big Politics -- that is looking ahead to a record year in 2012.
The U.S. elections will be the most expensive ever, with a total price tag of $6 billion or even more, fueled by millions of dollars in unrestricted donations as Republicans and Democrats vie for control of the White House, Congress and state governments.
"It's safe to say that, given that we had a $5 billion cycle in 2008, it will certainly be more than that and very likely over $6 billion, which is just an astonishing growth rate," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.
The cost of the election is surprising given that only the Republican Party is holding presidential primaries, unlike in 2008 when both parties had expensive contests to find a candidate.
One reason it will be so costly this time around is the fundraising power of leading candidates, even with a sputtering economy and high unemployment. President Barack Obama is expected to at least match the record $760 million he raised to win the White House in 2008 and even hit $1 billion.
Obama's Republican challenger will need a similar war chest to compete. Two of the Republican frontrunners, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, are fundraising heavyweights.
A third Republican, Michele Bachmann, also can bring in the cash and was the House of Representatives' best fundraiser in 2010.
Fundraising in congressional and local races is also mounting with 14 months to go before the November 6 elections. The money to be hauled in and spent in the overall 2012 campaign is equivalent to the GDP of a small country like Nicaragua.
The 2012 candidates for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives reported raising $295.2 million in the first six months of 2011, the highest total ever reported for the first half of a non-election year.
Candidates will use the money to pay for staff and travel, but if previous campaigns are any measure they will spend about half on advertising. That is a bonanza for television and radio networks, especially in the hardest fought states and areas with competitive Senate and House races.
Analysts forecast perhaps billions of dollars in advertising spending, boosting revenues at a range of U.S. media companies. TV networks like CBS, Fox News, ABC, NBC and CNN will be the biggest benefactors.
But while presidential and congressional candidates cannot run a race without a big checkbook, neither party is seen as gaining a major advantage from the current spending splurge.
More money does not always mean victory, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute.
"You can point to election after election where a person spent more and spent more, and the more the voters heard of that person, the more that person went down in the polls," Malbin said. "If the person is selling horse meat the people won't eat it."
The cost of U.S. elections has risen steadily but this will be the first presidential race since the landmark "Citizens United" 2010 Supreme Court ruling, which ended most restrictions on donations by corporations and unions.
It also fostered the creation of Super PACs, fundraising committees that can spend money to support a candidate but cannot officially coordinate with campaigns.
The Super PACs worry ethics watchdogs, who say the increased leverage of big donors is limiting the influence of average voters on politics.
In particular, the need to get big donations early in campaigns is keeping candidates with fewer donors from even running for office, particularly in congressional races. And the reign of big money in politics inevitably will give too much clout to big donors, activists say.
"Those who fund the candidates are the ones who get listened to," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, which works on campaign finance and government ethics. "And a Super PAC and others that can deliver millions of dollars, any supposed notion that they are not going to have a leg up is wrong. It's not just a leg up, it's going to be that the system runs for them."
All of the leading Republican candidates have Super PACs.
A half dozen are backing Perry, who has rocketed to the top of polls in the Republican nomination race.
A Super PAC associated with Romney received $1 million from W Spann, a corporation that existed for four months and apparently engaged in no activity other than the donation. Edward Conard, a former executive of Romney's old company, Bain Capital, came forward early this month and said he was behind W Spann, but said he did not intend to circumvent campaign finance law by creating the company.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott