Jae C. Hong, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Sure, there's always handwringing about money in politics. This time really is different, though — the first presidential race since the courts changed the rules, clearing the way for secret cash and freeing billionaires and businesses to write multimillion-dollar checks for their favorite candidates. It's the Year of Big Money.
Here are six ways cash is transforming the 2012 elections:
1. New ways to give more than ever
Some of the nation's richest tycoons are pouring millions of dollars into campaigns in ways they couldn't before. Corporations and labor unions can do it, too. And they can hide from the public if they choose.
The biggest change is the explosion of the "super" political action committee. Set free from the contribution limits governing federal campaigns and old-style political committees, the new super PACs can take in limitless money and yet operate like an extension of a candidate's team.
There is a catch — they can't legally "coordinate" their spending with a candidate, such as planning ad strategy together. But that's interpreted so loosely it hardly matters. Presidential candidates send a few top aides to set up a super PAC, then endorse it publicly, speak at its fundraisers, hang out privately with its biggest givers.
The biggest of these formed for a presidential candidate, Restore Our Future, is operated by former top advisers from Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid. So far it's raised more than $50 million, most of it already spent in the hard-fought primaries, and the general election's just getting started.
Two ex-White House aides set up President Barack Obama's entry in the money race, Priorities USA Action, which lags behind with less than $9 million raised.
In the Republican primaries, super PACs supporting Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich outspent the candidates' own campaigns.
How did this come about? It mushroomed from two court decisions in 2010. First, the Supreme Court said corporations and unions have the right — like individual Americans — to spend as much from their treasuries as they please to influence elections, so long as they act independently of candidates and the spending is disclosed. Then, an appeals court threw out the $5,000 annual limit on contributions to "independent" political committees.
The cash-happy super PAC was born.
Outside spending already has topped $100 million for 2012 federal races, four times the amount at the same point in 2008.
2. More mean-spirited ads
So what do super PACs do with all that money? They buy ads, and almost all are negative.
More than $9 out of every $10 spent by the pro-Romney group was designed to tear down his rivals, instead of promoting Romney. When Santorum or Gingrich popped up in the polls, Restore Our Future whacked him with millions of dollars in negative ads.
Already, the drumbeat for the Obama-Romney race is starting. A Republican super PAC called American Crossroads launched a TV ad blasting Obama for the high price of gasoline. The Obama team's super PAC answered with ads declaring that Romney is "in the tank for big oil."
Why do these "independent" committees go relentlessly negative? Because it works, and because they can do it with impunity, says Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner now seeking campaign reform.
"Normally a candidate is worried that voters will think badly of them if they run too many negative ads. Super PACs don't care if people think badly about them," said Potter, the lawyer featured in comedian Stephen Colbert's parody of super PACs.
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