Restore Our Future, a "super PAC" that backs Mitt Romney, has… (Restore Our Future )
No matter who wins the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, one newcomer has already emerged victorious: "super PACs" and other new entities that can collect donations of unlimited size from individuals and corporations.
Every presidential campaign cycle in recent memory has introduced new ways for money to flow to campaigns, breaking previous spending records.
That will happen again in the 2012 presidential election, but the growth this time is different.
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Since a 2010 Supreme Court decision, waves of money have begun to flow to targeted races from the new PACs and from nonprofit "social welfare” organizations that do not disclose the identity of their donors.
In Iowa, a super PAC benefiting Mitt Romney has already showed it can move poll numbers for the candidate and against his opponents.
That group, Restore Our Future, has spent $2.8 million in the state, contributing to an advertising total that has already topped $16 million, according to NBC News.
The official campaigns accounted for about 60% of that total. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign alone spent 1 in every 4 advertising dollars in the state.
But it's the super PACs, and particularly Restore Our Future, that are getting the attention, in part because of aggressively negative ads the committee is running against Newt Gingrich. Romney acknowledged that Restore Our Future is operated by former aides when he was pressed about the supposedly independent groups during an interview Tuesday with Fox News.
“They want me to win,” Romney said. “And under the law, they can establish these entities and run ads.”
Candidates from both parties have seen super PACs and nonprofits form to support their campaigns. Republican-allied groups have seen a huge jump in support.
Officials affiliated with two related Republican groups - American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS - expect spending may top $300 million for their aligned organizations in 2012.
Among Democrats there is still some uncertainty about the organizations, though they are growing.
"Democrats are still checking out the infrastructure of these new groups," said David Rosen, a political strategist who has worked as finance director of presidential, Senate and state campaigns and now advises wealthy clients on donating to campaigns and parties. Rosen said the people he worked with "are not giving to the super PACs" now.
"It's up to me as the consultant to guide them," he said. "They consider me a wealth manager and I essentially advise clients on the best ways to invest their money. My clients are looking to win."
Most of them, he said, are giving money to party committees, which can legally accept $30,800 from an individual. Some may donate also to convention support committees, which can accept corporate and union funds in unlimited amounts.
Often the donors give to these party-related groups so that they can meet politicians and get a good seat at the nominating convention and related entertainment events.
"Most of the people I work with want to be part of the party," Rosen said.
Many campaign experts draw parallels between today's campaign finance landscape and the excesses of the Gilded Age, the late 19th century era when wealthy oil and rail magnates had extraordinary influence over the political process.
John Milton Cooper, a presidential historian at the University of Wisconsin, sees an analogy between the political and economic climate today and the presidential election of 1912. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election a century ago, defeating Republican incumbent President William Howard Taft and third-party candidate Theodore Roosevelt by demanding additional restrictions on corporate political power.
"There are strong parallels between 1912 and 2012," Cooper said. "There was growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, there was a broad sense that there was an undue influence of money in politics. But one of the differences is that in 1912 it was clear that the tide was running in the direction of the reformers, the progressives."
Together Wilson and Roosevelt, who offered competing visions for reining in the excesses of capitalism, got 70% of the vote.
"The political direction of the country today isn't so clear," Cooper said.
Many on the left, including Harvard University law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of a recently published book on campaign finance, "Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It," think the current campaign finance environment could ironically promote reforms because it could lead to scandal and public revulsion.
Not everyone sees today's climate as analogous to the Gilded Age.
Larry M. Bartels, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said some of his colleagues wondered "why so little money" was spent on campaigns.
"The amount is small given the economic stakes of decisions made by the federal government," he said.
He thinks the money flowing to politicians was more concentrated at the turn of the last century.
“My own impression is that the role of money was greater and more corrosive 120 years ago than it is now," he said, in part because of reforms and in part because of the changing nature of the economy.
Bartels’ view, like that of other campaign finance experts, is that it is still too early to say how big the change in corporate campaign participation will be.
"People are right to be concerned," he said. "... But how it will play out is still pretty unclear at this point."