2012 marks the first presidential campaign involving so-called "super PACs" capable of making "independent expenditures" on behalf of candidates and raising unlimited sums of money from donors. The weak limits on "coordination" between super PACs and the candidates they're supporting have pretty much been in name only: the super PACs are typically run by close allies of the presidential candidates.
Campaign finance reformers say what's happening in Iowa is just a taste of what voters across the country are in for over the next ten months. Polls show the ads have had a predicable effect on candidate support in the days before the caucus.
"Absolutely, this is just the beginning of an ongoing disaster in the 2012 elections, and it will take place in both presidential and congressional campaigns," Fred Wertheimer told TPM. The super PACs allow "evade and circumvent" the limitations. "We are seeing one of the many disastrous consequences of the Citizens United decision."
Wertheimer's group questions the legality of the presidential super PACs, said that they put candidates for public office of "on the auction block 24-7."
While super PACs were around in the 2010 congressional races, Wertheimer said what's happening in Iowa is "a vivid example" of how such groups will work as arms of the presidential campaigns.
Because most candidates wouldn't have to file their reports until the end of January, it's difficult to compare the money super PACs are spending in "independent expenditures" to what the campaigns are spending on the ground. But we've got a few numbers of what super PACs have spent on independent expenditures.
TPM's analysis of expenditures filed by super PACs affiliated with presidential campaigns show that Romney was the chief beneficiary, with two super PACs spending $4,591,273 in his support in December and early January. Perry came in second with $3,100,594 while Huntsman (who has focused on New Hampshire instead of Iowa) rang in with $1,510,473.
Here's a breakdown of who's had what spent on their behalf just since the start of December.
The Center for Public Integrity's iWatch calculated that the so-called "super PACs" spent $12.9 million in Iowa and other early GOP battleground states through New Year's Day.
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this report from Iowa.