The votes have been counted in Iowa, and the winner is (drum roll please) … Super PAC.

That’s the new creature of American politics permitted by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the result of which is making its first appearance in a presidential race.

Super PACs, or independent expenditure-only organizations, can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or unions and spend it without restriction, delivering messages for or against a candidate.

In Iowa, the biggest player was Mitt Romney’s allegedly independent Restore Our Future PAC, which outspent the Romney for President campaign by a two-to-one margin, devoting almost all of the $2.8 million it spent in Iowa on negative ads targeting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has said he would not respond with negative ads of his own, but his increasingly tart comments about Romney give Gingrich’s Super PAC the wink it needs to know that it can start hammering Romney without getting the candidate’s disapproval.

The negative ads hurt Gingrich, but how much they helped Romney is not clear. He got almost the same number of votes he received in 2008, when he finished second in Iowa to Mike Huckabee. Gingrich, who looked like a winner in some polls back in November, was crushed Tuesday, but those votes did not go to Romney.


What we can expect from the Super PAC-dominated campaign is unrestrained negative campaigning with no accountability. Unlike those who donate directly to a candidate, Super PAC donors don’t have to identify themselves, and just like the candidate they support, bear no responsibility for the substance of their charges — no matter how unfair or untrue.

Gingrich’s PAC may not be able to raise enough money to drown out the Romney attack machine, but if Romney is the nominee, he can expect to be on the receiving end of Democratic negative ads paid for by organized labor, which may have something to say about the former CEO of Bain Capital from moving into the White House.

Expect a low-down and dirty campaign, the kind that results in low turnout and lingering hard feelings from the eventual winner and loser.

It’s not exactly the free exchange of ideas that the Supreme Court’s majority described when it decided Citizen United, but it’s what that ruling has given us.

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