WASHINGTON — Sure, there's always handwringing about money in politics. This time really is different, though — the first presidential race since the courts changed the rules, clearing the way for secret cash and freeing billionaires and businesses to write multimillion-dollar checks for their favorite candidates. It's the Year of Big Money.
Here are six ways cash is transforming the 2012 elections:
1. New ways to give more than ever
Some of the nation's richest tycoons are pouring millions of dollars into campaigns in ways they couldn't before. Corporations and labor unions can do it, too. And they can hide from the public if they choose.
The biggest change is the explosion of the "super" political action committee. Set free from the contribution limits governing federal campaigns and old-style political committees, the new super PACs can take in limitless money and yet operate like an extension of a candidate's team.
There is a catch — they can't legally "coordinate" their spending with a candidate, such as planning ad strategy together. But that's interpreted so loosely it hardly matters. Presidential candidates send a few top aides to set up a super PAC, then endorse it publicly, speak at its fundraisers, hang out privately with its biggest givers.
The biggest of these formed for a presidential candidate, Restore Our Future, is operated by former top advisers from Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential bid. So far it's raised more than $50 million, most of it already spent in the hard-fought primaries, and the general election's just getting started.
Two ex-White House aides set up President Barack Obama's entry in the money race, Priorities USA Action, which lags behind with less than $9 million raised.
In the Republican primaries, super PACs supporting Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich outspent the candidates' own campaigns.
How did this come about? It mushroomed from two court decisions in 2010. First, the Supreme Court said corporations and unions have the right — like individual Americans — to spend as much from their treasuries as they please to influence elections, so long as they act independently of candidates and the spending is disclosed. Then, an appeals court threw out the $5,000 annual limit on contributions to "independent" political committees.
The cash-happy super PAC was born.
Outside spending already has topped $100 million for 2012 federal races, four times the amount at the same point in 2008.
2. More mean-spirited ads
So what do super PACs do with all that money? They buy ads, and almost all are negative.
More than $9 out of every $10 spent by the pro-Romney group was designed to tear down his rivals, instead of promoting Romney. When Santorum or Gingrich popped up in the polls, Restore Our Future whacked him with millions of dollars in negative ads.
Already, the drumbeat for the Obama-Romney race is starting. A Republican super PAC called American Crossroads launched a TV ad blasting Obama for the high price of gasoline. The Obama team's super PAC answered with ads declaring that Romney is "in the tank for big oil."
Why do these "independent" committees go relentlessly negative? Because it works, and because they can do it with impunity, says Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner now seeking campaign reform.
"Normally a candidate is worried that voters will think badly of them if they run too many negative ads. Super PACs don't care if people think badly about them," said Potter, the lawyer featured in comedian Stephen Colbert's parody of super PACs.
When Romney's GOP rivals howled that they were being smothered by misleading super PAC ads, the candidate insisted there was nothing he could do, saying, "By law, we're not allowed to talk to them."
3. The rise of the political sugar daddy
Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson may be the best friend a candidate ever had. He and his wife, Miriam, put $20 million toward Gingrich's bid, keeping it going past its expiration date. That's 4,000 times more than the couple could legally give to Gingrich's primary campaign itself: $5,000.
Adelson can afford it. He's the eighth-richest person in America, according to the Forbes list, worth an estimated $21.5 billion.
Every candidate needed at least one megabucks buddy to have a shot at the Republican nomination this year. Wyoming investor Foster Friess, for example, handed Santorum's group more than $2 million.
Romney has the widest circle of wealth. His super PAC reports more than a dozen givers of at least $1 million. Its counterpart on the Obama side lists three: late-night comic Bill Maher, gardening guru Amy P. Goldman and DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who kicked in $2 million.
Before 2010, individuals could legally spend their own money creating "independent" ads, but without well-organized, candidate-endorsed groups in place to run things, hardly anyone ever did. Those who wanted to put big money behind a candidate sometimes dabbled in gray areas of the law instead.
Billionaire investor George Soros pumped about $1.5 million into the liberal group Moveon.org's campaign to vilify President George W. Bush in 2004. Wealthy conservatives backed the "swift boat" ads attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry. One of them, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, is now the biggest supporter of the Romney super PAC, giving $4 million.
American elections haven't seen freestyle spending like this since the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s mandated disclosure of donors and limited contributions.
4. Big business invited in
Companies and unions can play the super PAC game, too. So far businesses and organizations have given just under a fourth of super PAC money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Publicly traded corporations may fear offending stockholders or customers, however. Gay rights activists protested loudly when Target Corp. donated $150,000 to a super PAC supporting a Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who strongly opposed gay marriage. The company apologized.
Corporations may prefer backdoor avenues of giving that also are opening wider to them under the new rules.
"You can imagine the scenario in which a Microsoft or Google or Facebook decides, 'This election really matters. What's another $20 million?'" said Brigham Young University professor David Magleby, who studies campaign finance.
And they could be pressured to give.
Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, worries about a return to the days of President Richard Nixon's campaign shaking down corporations. "Unlimited contributions became temptations for officeholders to twist the arms of potential donors and come just one step short of criminal extortion," he said.
5. Donors hiding in the shadows
Super PACs are required to list their contributors, but some big givers stay secret by going through other channels.
Publicity-shy people and companies can give to advocacy groups that don't have to disclose their donors, because ostensibly they are focused on issues or the good of society, not candidates. These tax-exempt groups for years have spent millions on things like prodding people to the polls, voter registration, and "issue ads" that sometimes look more like attack ads.
Now they can act in the open — spending much of their money on ads to directly support or, more often, oppose candidates. The state of the law is fuzzy, but it appears court rulings have cleared issue groups to spend almost half their budgets this way.
They include old standard-bearers like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, plus newbies such as Crossroads GPS, created by Republican Karl Rove, and a pro-Obama group, Priorities USA. Those two are sister organizations to super PACs with similar names, and could become a path for unnamed donors into those committees.
Crossroads GPS told the IRS it raised more than $77 million through December. Donors could include individuals, businesses or trade groups. Without naming names, Crossroads reported two gifts of $10 million each and four of more than $4 million.
6. Outside money swamping congressional campaigns
Big money can throw its weight around even more effectively in congressional races.
"Five million spent in the presidential race, it's a lot of money to me, but not a lot of money out of the total spent in the election," former FEC chief Potter said. "You take the same $5 million and you spend it in a House race and you're spending more than everybody else combined. You'd be the single largest spender in most Senate races.
"It is possible to buy, or try to buy, a House or Senate race through this anonymous money and nobody will know you're doing it," he said.
The Republican-allied Chamber of Commerce promises an unprecedented effort this year after spending more than $30 million on the 2010 midterms, just after the courts opened the door. Other groups are piling on, too. Both Democratic and Republican leaders have started super PACs in their fight for House and Senate control.
Many of the donors will be familiar. The House Republican group already has received $5 million from Gingrich's super givers, the Adelsons.
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum contributed to this report.