ONE CALCULATION was possible even before polls closed: The cost of the 2004 election may exceed $4 billion. Though a new campaign finance law barred unlimited "soft money" contributions to the political parties, almost $1 billion more will be spent on presidential and congressional campaigns than in 2000, according to estimates by the Center for Responsive Politics. So reform failed, right? Wrong. In important ways the record sums reflect a healthier system.

The McCain-Feingold reform never promised to solve all problems, and it hasn't. The financing system that was supposed to limit spending in the presidential campaign has all but collapsed. Soft money migrated from political parties to outside groups that played a sometimes disturbing role. But the spending also reflects an extraordinarily engaged electorate, the rise of Internet giving and the increased emphasis from both parties on raising small amounts from more individual donors -- all healthy developments. As big as $4 billion sounds, consider: Halloween spending was expected to top $3 billion this year.

The parties managed to wean themselves from the corrupting soft-money process of soliciting huge checks from individuals and businesses with interests before them. Through mid-October, the parties had raised $1 billion combined, up significantly from the total four years ago -- even though the 2000 tally included $420 million in soft money. Warnings that the parties would wither without soft money, to be drowned out by outside groups, proved false. And while many Democrats feared that they were being dealt a fatal blow, their party beefed up limited-donation hard-money fundraising from $174 million four years ago to $451 million this cycle, not all that far behind the GOP's $557 million.

According to calculations by PoliticalMoneyLine, outside groups known as 527s have collected $460 million so far this cycle, and the checks are bigger than ever. Billionaire financier George Soros contributed $27 million, and more than 60 individuals, organizations or unions have given $1 million or more. It's troubling that these outsize checks are being spent to influence federal elections, while others have to comply with stricter rules. It's troubling as well that the 527 groups are run by major players in both parties, a phenomenon that risks re-creating the corrupting nature of the old soft-money system.

Yet if not severed, the unhealthy link between lawmakers and big checks has been greatly attenuated, and the big money is being driven more by ideology than the self-interest and near-extortion of old. The best evidence of this is the near absence of corporate America from the 527 soft-money game. While business gave $230 million in soft money to the parties four years ago, often splitting their largesse between the two sides, corporate America pretty much sat on the 527 sidelines this year. The campaign finance system, in short, is better off than it was four years ago.