WASHINGTON -- "This is politics," Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared Dec. 21, dismissing calls for him to condemn ads attacking former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that were run by an independent group supporting Romney's candidacy.
The ads were part of an unprecedented $3.3 million negative campaign of television spots and direct mail by Restore Our Future, an independent expenditure-only committee or super PAC, which blunted Gingrich's rise and may very well be the main ingredient in an Iowa victory for Romney next Tuesday.
Never before have the Iowa caucuses seen such a campaign by any group other than a candidate committee. And with days to go before Iowans cast their votes, the new political landscape is coming into sharper focus.
Fully aware of the bazooka he had in his back pocket, Romney on Friday jetted off to New Hampshire to campaign for the primary election there, casually planning a return to the Hawkeye State on Saturday afternoon. Calm and assured that his campaign would keep on going past Iowa, he put an op-ed in the State newspaper in South Carolina and spent the morning taking shots at President Barack Obama in a variety of interviews. Opponents were left grappling for third place in Tuesday night's vote.
Gingrich, the target of the pro-Romney super PAC's ammo, was left in a more fetal state. "I can't do modern politics," the former speaker said at one campaign stop. At another, he broke down in tears, as he described memories of his mother.
The 2012 Iowa caucus is, increasingly, not about the individuals running. Campaign finance observers have warned repeatedly that independent groups, enabled by the Supreme Court's January 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to raise and spend unlimited sums, would alter the balance of campaigns, once run primarily by candidate committees and party organizations. So far, those warnings are looking prescient.
As evidenced in Iowa, campaigns now operate as political parties of one. Candidates with enough financing can lay their own groundwork for voter mobilization efforts and remain positive, while a supportive super PAC runs negative ads beating off opponents. Voter mobilization and opponent attacks were roles traditionally reserved for the party organizations in the general election, but thanks to Citizens United and the birth of super PACs, each individual candidate can now operate in this fashion.
The Iowa caucuses have always attracted independent groups looking to back their favored candidates. Most of the action in the past has occurred on the Democratic side with labor unions battling for their preferred nominee. In the 2008 election cycle, as reported to the FEC, independent groups, the most important of which were unions, combined to spend $3.4 million on independent expenditures across all primary states in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. In the 2004 cycle, those groups reported only $1.5 million in spending to the FEC prior to the caucuses.
This time around, independent groups have come to dominate not just the Iowa contest but the entire Republican primary season. According to a Huffington Post analysis of independent expenditures so far this electoral season, super PACs have combined to spend $11 million in the Republican primaries, at least $5.8 million of that in Iowa alone.
Super PACs are a type of political committee that can raise unlimited sums from corporations, unions and individuals and spend unlimited sums on independent expenses. They were authorized by the FEC after the Citizens United decision allowed unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions in elections.
"With the super PACs now you have a different creature," said Colby College professor and campaign finance expert Anthony Corrado. "These are entities who are organized for a particular candidate. They have every incentive to spend all of their money now. These PACs are organized to help candidates get through Iowa, New Hampshire and all of the early states."
Leading the way among the candidate-specific super PACs is the pro-Romney Restore Our Future. Formed in January 2011 by three veterans of Romney's 2008 run for the presidency, the group raised $12.2 million through June 30 (the same amount raised by Rep. Ron Paul through Sept. 30) and remained dormant until the second week of December.
Beginning on Dec. 9, Restore Our Future let loose a negative advertising and direct mail campaign unlike anything in Iowa caucus history. In the weeks preceding the super PAC's barrage, Gingrich had vaulted into the top position in polls in Iowa and many other key primary states. By the time Restore Our Future had aired close to $3 million in attack ads, Gingrich had fallen into a four-way race for third place.
The negative ad coverage was total. According to data provided to The Huffington Post by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, 45 percent of the ads aired in Iowa in the month of December were negative ads targeting Newt Gingrich. A Dec. 29 NBC-Marist poll showed that 35 percent of Republicans in Iowa found Gingrich to be unelectable, a 19 point increase from the previous month.
Restore Our Future's efforts helped to solidify Romney's position atop the field while providing him an arm's length distance from the negativity. It also increased the disparity in spending among the candidates.
"The super PACs have had a great effect in reinforcing Romney's financial advantage," Corrado said. "Not only has he been outraising his opponents, but the super PAC has been raising more than the other super PACs."
That reinforcement can be seen in the ad buy numbers for the areas around Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Quad City. According to data compiled by IowaPolitics.com and posted by the West Des Moines Patch, Romney spent $411,739 on ads in those three metropolitan areas while Restore Our Future spent $1.1 million.
The Romney campaign has easily outpaced most rivals in the fundraising department by pulling in $32 million through Sept. 30. His campaign is expected to announce an additional $20 million coming in the final three months of 2011.
This has come amidst a more general dearth in campaign financing for the 2012 primary contestants. The candidates combined to raise only $88 million through Sept. 30, the end of the third quarter. That is half of the $176 million the GOP field had raised at the same point in the 2008 election cycle. Ron Paul, alone among the field, is outperforming his 2008 run by raising $4 million more than he had at the same point last time.
The drop in donations has accompanied a remarkable reduction in spending by the candidate campaigns in Iowa up through December, which has left the super PACs to dominate the conversation. As of Sept. 30, the campaigns had barely made any investment in winning Iowa.
"They didn't spend anywhere near the money that they spent in the last time," said David Swenson, an Iowa State University economics professor who has studied the economic impact of the Iowa caucuses. "My conclusion is it's got to be less than half of what we had last time."
Swenson explained that the limited money spent by the candidates in Iowa has predominantly gone to television ads and, save for the campaigns of Romney and Paul, stayed away from the traditional retail politics and grassroots organizing for which the Iowa caucuses are famous. "What they're doing is trading off door knocking at this stage, or up to this stage, for the massive advertising we've been inundated with," he said.
Television advertising is one of the few areas where the Republicans are spending on par with the 2008 race. In 2008, the Republican presidential hopefuls dropped approximately $9.5 million on TV ads. (The 2008 Democratic race in Iowa featured far more spending on television, in excess of $30 million.) The GOP's 2012 race is on pace to break that mark with super PACs and the campaigns of Gov. Rick Perry and Ron Paul leading the way.
While Perry and Paul are spending the most among the candidates on TV, others have gone without much air support. Rep. Michele Bachmann, once considered a potential winner of the caucuses, has not bought television spots from August to Jan. 1, 2012.
Rick Santorum has visited every county in Iowa, but couldn't afford ads until the tail end of the campaign. Santorum, who is riding a late surge in Iowa, has been aided by a pair of super PACs spending more than $600,000 on television and radio ads and phone banks to contact voters. One of those PACs appears to be working in concert with Iowa evangelicals; it features Bob Vander Plaats, the state's most prominent evangelical who recently endorsed Santorum, in both its TV and radio spots.
That connection could also lift the former Pennsylvania senator in an area he has been unable to properly finance -- his get-out-the-vote efforts. Evangelicals in Iowa have excellent voter mobilization operations that could help Santorum compete with the two well-financed mobilization operations ready to boost Romney and Paul on Jan. 3.
UPDATE: Two days after the Iowa caucuses, HuffPost reporter Paul Blumenthal appeared on MSNBC's Dylan Ratigan show to discuss the role Super PACs played in Romney's narrow victory.
WATCH Restore Our Future's first anti-Gingrich ad: