WASHINGTON (AP) — Look no further than Iowa to understand the impact of a Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates to outside money in American politics — and to get a glimpse of what's in store for the race between President Barack Obama and the eventual Republican nominee.
Independent groups called super political action committees have spent millions on television ads and mailings to boost their favored candidates in Iowa and maim those candidates' rivals, dramatically influencing what's been a remarkably fluid race for the GOP presidential nomination.
The groups have ramped up spending just as the primary season is hitting full-force. Some have done the campaigns' bidding by running attack ads on rivals. Others have bolstered candidates who had been running on financial fumes.
The trend will hardly be unique to Iowa. Political operatives and campaign-finance watchdogs say the 2012 election — projected to be among the costliest ever — will face an onslaught of ads by powerful interests that will have an extraordinary say in who might next occupy the Oval Office.
With more than 300 days to go before the general election, the measures of influence are legion: Some TV ads assail Newt Gingrich for "collecting big bucks" from mortgage lender Freddie Mac, and others praise Mitt Romney for "turning around" dozens of companies. One heralded Rick Santorum as a "courageous reformer with results" while another credited Rick Perry for his outside-the-Beltway experience.
Meanwhile, the candidates didn't have to spend a dime of their own money for any of those ads.
"We're going to see huge amounts of money in the course of 2012 spent by the candidate-specific super PACs," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21 and a prominent critic of the new groups. "They are vehicles for big donors to circumvent the contribution limits and give money that directly benefits the candidates."
In just one week before the election's first vote, groups like the Romney-leaning super PAC Restore Our Future and the Perry-leaning Make Us Great Again have spent a combined $1.2 million on television ads in Iowa — a sum greater than what the candidates paid out themselves. On top of that, experts say the ads this primary season are more negative than they were four years ago.
The super PACs are a product of the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which removed restrictions on corporate and union spending in elections. Still, Republican-leaning groups far outpaced their Democratic counterparts in that year's midterm elections, helping Republicans win control of the House and pick up six seats in the Senate.
Nearly two years later, the money is still flowing to GOP candidates.