Reporting from Washington — Viewers in media markets nationwide are already well familiar with being bombarded with ads either supporting or criticizing candidates for Congress and the White House in the months before an election. But that could be nothing compared with what today's landmark Supreme Court campaign-finance decision appears to invite, experts say.
The ruling removes limits on corporations from spending their money on federal races, meaning that companies -- and probably labor unions -- will be free, for instance, to buy up advertising time days and weeks before an election to support or attack a potential candidate, perhaps creating slick spots with high production values similar to drug or car ads, or purchasing large blocks of network time.
Previously, federal law prohibited corporations and unions from using their treasuries to advocate for a specific candidate, allowing them to express themselves only through political action committees that were tightly regulated. They will still be prevented from donating money directly to campaigns even after today's decision.
What remains to be seen is how many corporations avail themselves of their new freedom. Right now, many already chose to contribute to groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as a form of campaign advocacy. They may continue do so to avoid being so closely identified with a specific candidate or race.
Before today's decision, groups such as the chamber, as well as labor unions, could not run ads expressly to support or defeat a candidate and were required to air so-called issue ads instead. Critics have long charged, however, that those ads acted as simple proxies for direct campaign ads, and some say today's ruling will simply result in an even greater proliferation of such ads.
Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates were highly critical of the court's decision.
"The Supreme Court just predetermined the winners of next November's elections," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) "It won't be Republicans. It won't be Democrats. It will be corporate America."
Schumer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic House reelection effort, said they would offer legislation to try to scale back the reach of the decision before November's congressional elections.
Aides said such proposals could include tighter monitoring on rules that prohibit coordination between outside groups and campaigns, or increased disclosure requirements that would force companies to be more transparent about their electoral activities to shareholders and others.
Campaign strategists and other experts were divided on how the decision would alter the landscape.
Democrats were worried -- probably because corporate spending has historically benefited Republicans.
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist in Washington, worried that corporations may now dominate elections so completely that the candidate's own message may be eclipsed.
"Corporations are going to impose their view and judgment about what a campaign should be about," Devine said. "It's really going to hurt campaigns that want to control their own message."
And corporations may be able to deploy their assets tactically. Instead of spending in dozens of races, they could target just a few, score some victories and use the threat of a large war chest to scare other candidates from running aggressive campaigns. Or decide to spend huge amounts of money only at the very end of a race to tilt the contest.
Devine said the result would be a decrease in the effectiveness of the small, individual donation, just a year after President Obama's presidential campaign seemed to harness the power of such contributions on a massive scale.
"I think the pendulum is going to turn back to the other side," Devine said. "Powerful moneyed interests will [again] be the dominant force in politics."
But others said the ruling might not yield a dramatic difference.
"Whether there's a vast increase in the amount of resources spent, it's hard to say," said Joseph Sandler, a former lawyer for the Democratic National Committee. "There's already so much they can do."
Total spending on political advertising in the 2008 election cycle reached a record $2.6 billion.
Republican consultants, in particular, argued that the decision would simply shift spending by political action committees and issue-based "front groups" to the corporations themselves.
"I don't believe that the ruling will fundamentally change the outcome of the elections given the obscene amounts of money that was spent independently in the last two years by everyone," said Jim Innocenzi, a GOP strategist in Alexandria, Va. "You could argue that since everyone has figured out a way to get around the rules, we'd be better off with full disclosures of who is really paying for this stuff and let everyone just promote whatever cause they want."
"There is only so much advertising space available the last 30 to 60 days [before an election] anyway, so all the ruling does is jack up the cost of 30-second commercials at the end of the campaign," he said.
"People will be directly responsible for their message; they'll be more responsible," said Rex Elsass, a Republican media strategist in Ohio. "Should I choose to run an ad myself as a company. I'm going to be involved in that message."