Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, notes that 527 groups existed well before the high court’s ruling in Citizen’s United. The traditional issue groups, though, are focused entirely on specific interests, rather than on electing Republicans or Democrats more broadly.

“Our advocacy was built around what persuades and drives voters, which I think is a significant difference,” Law says. 

Nowhere is that more apparent than in their media strategy. Conservative Super PACs went after Democrats hard on spending and healthcare reform last year, often replicating the same message in district after district and state after state. Without the, often, clunky chain of command present in most candidate campaigns, TV ads were shot, edited and broadcast quickly, increasing their effectiveness.  

“Candidates tend to stall, perseverate, angst over what is the best commercial, whereas the people at independent expenditure committees appear more decisive and confident in what needs to be said,” explains Wilson. “You can make the commercials faster and get them on the air quicker.” 

It’s not unusual for a candidate campaign to go through 15 or more drafts of an ad, versus just seven or eight for an independent expenditure group. In practical terms, it means the outside groups have a much smaller hurdle to jump when it comes to getting their message on the air early in a campaign cycle.  

If candidate campaigns had to get their messaging up earlier in 2010 in an attempt to blunt the increased spending, they may need to completely discard anything resembling a traditional campaign calendar this cycle—one of the first major strategic changes necessitated by the core of new outside groups, several of which are already on the air. 

On the presidential level, Priorities USA Action has already run a TV ad targeting the presumed Republican presidential frontrunner—former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And the debt and budget battles raging in Congress have spurred American Crossroads to action. By the end of August, the group will have already spent some $20 million on TV attacking Obama and targeting vulnerable House and Senate Democrats in key battleground states like Ohio and Virginia—all months before any candidate is likely to begin their own paid media campaign.

“The lesson is you need to get your message, budget and campaign plan is place as early as possible,” says John Rowley, a Democratic media consultant who heads Fletcher Rowley. His firm works extensively for Democratic congressional campaigns. 

Getting candidates conditioned to making some strategic decisions very early in the cycle won’t be easy, he says, but it’s one of the key takeaways from last year. Candidate campaigns need to spend much more time thinking about how and when third party groups may decide to make a play in their state or district and be ready to respond, in some capacity, as early as 18 months before Election Day.

In addition, a number of Super PACs have already formed around specific presidential candidates. Restore Our Future is a pro-Mitt Romney Super PAC started by several of the former governor’s campaign aides. The group raised $12 million through the second quarter of 2011. Last month, a group of Ron Paul backers formed Revolution PAC to aid the Texas congressman’s 2012 presidential bid and a Super PAC has already formed to promote Texas Gov. Rick Perry. 

Super PACs cannot directly coordinate with candidates or party committees, but on both the left and the right, the new organizations are talking, strategizing (much like the major party committees) and attempting to apply the lessons of 2010. 

Last cycle, a solid level of cooperation was integral, says Rob Collins, the former president of American Action Network.

“It wasn’t like all these groups were fighting each other or killing each other,” Collins says. “It was much different. There were no donors in the room. There were no opinions about should it be free trade coffee or should we use recycled paper. It was just a group of about 10 people, who said, ‘Here’s what I can do based on my donors’ qualifications, based on the mission of our group.’”

For Bill Burton, that part of the playbook is key for the left to replicate in 2012.

“The important thing is there are multiple groups on the Democratic side working on fairly discrete projects,” Burton explains. His organizations will handle the presidential race, Majority PAC will deal with contested Senate races and House Majority PAC will focus on the congressional side. Opposition research and tracking will be overseen by another group, American Bridge 21st Century.

All of the outside groups on the left “talk constantly,” says Ali Lapp, who heads House Majority PAC. They also keep a close eye on what the official party committees are doing and respond accordingly.

Last cycle, Super PACs attempted to telegraph their intentions by being open, in a very strategic way, when it came to media strategy and allocation of certain resources.

“We pursued a strategy of being very transparent and clear about our advertising strategy,” says Law. “We bought big blocks. There was no doubt about which markets and how long we were going to play. We told the press.” 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, he says, were then able to see the strategy from Crossroads “and therefore played off against us.”  

Expect more of the same this cycle, especially given the proliferation of new groups on both the right and the left. Many strategists expect 2012 to be a year where outside groups settle into more specialized roles. If it works, it could pose a much more direct threat to traditional party structures in coming cycles. A network of outside groups that stands to be more nimble, better funded and perhaps even better organized than the party committees is an inherent threat. Thanks in large part to the coordination wall between outside groups and campaigns, however, it’s a threat that has yet to fully materialize.