The unparalleled barrage of negative political advertising funded by nominally independent super PACs in the Iowa caucuses was just an opener. The repeat performance of the super PACs in South Carolina's Republican primary, though largely compressed into a two-week time slot before Saturday's balloting, is even more intense. Taken together, the super PACs' unbridled spending phenomena is merely a glimpse of what surely will become the norm this campaign year in the wake of the Supreme Court's willful unleashing of unaccountable moneyed interests into the national political arena.
The high court's decision two years ago in the Citizens United case allowed the creation of super PACs -- political action committees -- that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to help political candidates, so long as their spending is not coordinated with a candidate's campaign and campaign spending.
That's an exceedingly porous barrier. And though the 2012 elections mark the first national balloting since the ruling was handed down, it didn't take long for ultra-wealthy donors, who may remain anonymous, and rich corporate interests to see the opportunity and mobilize in behalf of the candidates and the political agendas they support.
In Iowa, spending by super PACS accounted for more than two-thirds of the record $12.5 million spent for political advertising ahead of the Republican caucuses. That was double what the candidates themselves spent through their campaigns, and well above the amount spent in the state's last gubernatorial campaign, which lasted 18 months.
In Iowa, super PACs that favored Mitt Romney did the dirty work of savaging his chief opponents, allowing Romney to keep the pretense of his good-guy routine. Newt Gingrich, then his chief competitor, plummeted suddenly in the polls after Romney-friendly super PAC-financed ads went to work.
With fewer media centers in New Hampshire, the super PACs have plunged ahead into South Carolina. Since December, they have booked ads costing more than $8 million: That is $2 million more than Republican candidates themselves spent in the hot 2008 presidential primary campaign. Worse, $5 million of that $8 million is for advertising bought by seven super PACS working to boost the five active candidates
So far, the two super PACS that favor Romney (Restore Our Future and Citizens for a Working America) have committed $1,787,470, or nearly double Romney's own campaign spending of $859,134 for ads in South Carolina.
The super PAC favoring Gingrich, Winning Our Future, has committed $1,248,920 -- three times Gingrich's campaign spending. The Make Us Great Again super PAC, favoring Rick Perry, has booked $1,116,650 in ad spending, more than double Perry's spending. The Red, White and Blue super PAC, for Rick Santorum, has committed $799,015. The Santa Rita super PAC, favoring Ron Paul, has booked $185,940 in ads. Only Ron Paul's campaign is spending more than the super PAC that favors him.
None of this is surprising. Candidate's official campaign donors, whose broad base of contributions are transparent, are on record and limited by campaign spending laws. In an environment where money and anonymity rules, they have simply taken a back seat to anonymous, ultra-wealthy high-rollers, who can write a big check in an eye-blink and turnaround the dynamic of a state's balloting.
The alignment of political interest and spending by super PACs and their super-rich backers affirms what critics of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision feared: That wealthy anonymous donors would take control of the nation's electioneering, and thus the candidates that will eventually rise to power. That's a dangerous and scary omen for the nation's democratic future.