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When we spoke on March 21, Mike McCabe issued an apparent weather bulletin, as for a brief but violent thunderstorm:

“It will be sudden, and it won’t last very long,” predicted McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan electoral spending watchdog. “But it will be saturation advertising once it gets going.”

Back when McCabe made his prediction, many Wisconsin residents had not yet seen a single commercial for the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls. Some didn’t even know the state’s primary, with its allotment of 42 delegates, was on the horizon.

But now the clouds have burst, and the downpour has begun. The GOP’s campaign-ad deluge is coming to a screen near you.

One instrument for measuring this downpour is the Washington Post’s cool interactive website, which tracks spending on political advertising per television market. The site uses data mined by Campaign Media Analysis Group, a Washington, D.C.-based company headed by UW-Madison professor Ken Goldstein.

Through March 25, this site tabulated, $1.8 million has been spent on ads for the presidential race in Wisconsin’s five television markets. (Some state residents have also had second-hand exposure to ads run in Minnesota and Illinois.) Most of this money — nearly $800,000 — has been spent on behalf of GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney.

The totals by market are as follows: $288,880 in La Crosse-Eau Claire; $227,760 in Wausau-Rhinelander, $293,680 in Green Bay-Appleton, $395,650 in Madison, and $553,850 in Milwaukee.

These numbers are based solely on ads that have actually aired through March 25, nine days before the April 3 primary. (Check the site Wednesday, April 4, to see spending totals through April 1.)

The leading spender in Wisconsin so far has been Restore Our Future, the oddly named pro-Romney super PAC, at $713,780, followed by Americans for Prosperity, an anti-Obama group, at $623,290. Barack Obama’s campaign has spent a total of $320,830 here.

But there’s much more to come. The Associated Press has reported that Restore Our Future has inked deals for more than $2 million in TV ad buys across Wisconsin. And the Red, White and Blue Fund, a super PAC supporting Rick Santorum, has reportedly bought more than $500,000 for ads to run in the campaign’s final week.

Nationwide, interest groups led by super PACs — which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without revealing who provides it — have outspent the presidential candidates by three to one, the Post’s numbers show. Total ad spending has just topped $100 million — with more than seven months to go before the election.

In Wisconsin, through March 25, the interest groups have spent $1.3 million on ads, compared to the candidates’ $390,920.

Nationally, the Post tally shows, 72 percent of the ad spending has been on negative messages. But a 30-second ad run by Romney in Wisconsin, the paper reported, is “sharply positive,” a shift in tone that purportedly signals Romney’s growing confidence in his ability to secure the nomination. Or maybe not: His campaign is also running an ad bashing Santorum.

Another terrific Washington Post website traces where the cash is coming from. Filings of contributions through Feb. 29 show Romney and his super PACs have raised $118.6 million. The rest of the field: Newt Gingrich, $39.9 million, Ron Paul $38.3 million, Santorum $21.6 million. Obama, who’s had more than three years to work on it, leads all comers with $296.6 million raised.

Here’s the breakdown for giving from Wisconsin: Romney, $209,414, Paul $199,919, Santorum $85,930, Gingrich $73,845. Oh, and Obama: $1.2 million.

Add in donations to ex-candidates like Michelle Bachmann and the state has given $2 million. That means Wisconsin is on the verge of taking in more ad revenue from the presidential sweepstakes than it’s pumped into the process. Consider it a silver lining.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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