After years of strong legal restrictions, a pair of 2010 Supreme Court decisions removed many barriers to fundraising and spending on elections by outside political groups. And this has notably impacted the 2012 presidential political race.
The contest for control of the White House is not limited to just the presidential candidates' own campaigns. There are also outside groups that want to affect the results of the election. And in the 2012 presidential race, these groups have been given significantly expanded freedoms to influence the outcome.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided two cases in 2010 that greatly changed the U.S. political landscape. The Supreme Court agreed with two groups, Citizens United and Speech Now, that existing regulations by the Federal Election Commission went against the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
But the Court's decisions opened up more than just free speech, as FEC Chairwoman Cynthia Bauerly explains:
"It struck down, specifically, a prohibition on corporations being able to spend independently, make electioneering communications, or independent expenditures, on behalf of a candidate," said Bauerly.
The Supreme Court rulings affected laws and regulations meant to prevent companies, or unions, or very wealthy individuals from essentially overwhelming the political process with their cash. Today, these rulings have helped to create powerful outside political action committees, or "Super PACS," as noted by Politico newspaper's David Levinthal.
"So what is different is that corporations, unions, and other special interests could spend as much money as they ever could want to, to give to new types of political organizations that, in turn, could themselves spend and raise unlimited sums of money," said Levinthal.
As of April this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign committee reported contributions top $86 million. At the same time, a pro-Romney Super PAC called "Restore Our Future" reported bringing in nearly $52 million.
By comparison, President Obama's re-election campaign reported raising almost $200 million by that date.
Federal regulations say these PACS cannot coordinate their operations with candidates' campaigns. But one political consultant who works with Democrats, Peter Fenn, says the reality is different.
"Most of these so-called independent groups are not independent at all," said Fenn. "They may not be working on direct orders from the candidate or the party, but they know what the issues are. They are part and parcel of the campaign."
While some decry the Supreme Court's decisions and the rise of these Super PACS, others say both parties, and these political committees, have equal opportunities to raise money. And, they say, voters won't be swayed by these outside groups.
"At the end of the day, they're [voters] going to look at a political ad and they are primarily going to judge that ad by its content, not by who is pushing it, or by the rules that created a playing field for the ad to exist in the first place," noted Roll Call newspaper reporter David Drucker.
Some observers say that by the November election, these outside PACs may well raise and spend more money than the candidates' own campaign committees, and will continue to do so in future elections.