Faster than a speeding teleprompter, more powerful than a joint endorsement from the ghosts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, able to leap media markets in a single ad buy. OK, maybe not. But the era of Super PACs is here and it’s shifting the way political consultants approach and practice their trade.

Unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision, which said corporate political spending could not be capped, the groups bypass the same rules that force candidates to spend hours on the phone courting donors. They are half 527 organizations that can collect unlimited sums of cash, half 501(c)4 “social welfare” nonprofits backed by anonymous contributions. And they are run by some of the top political talent in the business as high-level operatives continue to find homes with groups like American Crossroads and Priorities USA Action.   

Last cycle, outside structures made their presence known in a big way. Republicans retook the House and made gains in the Senate thanks in part to TV spots, mailers and phone calls paid for by organizations like American Crossroads, a Super PAC co-founded by GOP operatives Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. Its 501 (c)4 affiliate is Crossroads GPS. The groups swooped in with early ad buys in some races, quickly defining Democratic incumbents. In other spots, they came in with late TV blitzes, overwhelming the opposition in the run-up to Election Day and helping push many GOP candidates over the finish line.

Combined, the two groups spent some $38.6 million to help elect Republicans last fall. In 2012, that spending is likely to be doubled.  

“We have organizations with the ability to marshal resources and focus a machinegun fire of ads at a particular message,” says Paul Wilson, whose firm Wilson-Grand Communications worked with American Crossroads in the 2010 cycle. “The candidate doesn’t control the message anymore.”  

That’s an admission most media consultants wouldn’t make just four years ago and it marks a major break from decades of purely candidate-driven messaging. Last year, the new dynamic altered strategy for scores of candidate campaigns in the midterm elections and it’s a dynamic the 2012 cycle is likely to cement as Democrats join the outside spending party in earnest.  

After railing against the lack of disclosure and runaway spending among outside groups on the right in 2010, President Obama has unleashed the left just in time for his own reelection effort. The result is a network of Democratic outside structures, built to compete dollar for dollar in 2012 with their counterparts on the right. Priorities USA Action—the largest and most prominent new outside group on the left—is headed by former White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. Much like American Crossroads, it also has a 501(c)4 affiliate—Priorities USA.      

Ahead of 2012, campaign finance watchdogs are busy decrying the impact of such groups, while some in Congress are still searching for ways to blunt their influence. But the more practical question for political pros is what their emergence means, not only for the impending presidential cycle, but for the future of the consulting industry.    

Most campaigns have loads of staff and volunteers to manage. The mass of humanity clutters offices that usually have the decorative touches of a fraternity house. For a candidate campaign, it’s a show of strength to have so many people either sacrificing their time or getting a paycheck.

The Super PACS are different. They have skeleton crews working out of relatively nondescript cubicles. American Crossroads employed 12 people last election cycle and it expects to have less than 20 on staff for the 2012 cycle. It’s a point of pride that 90 cents of every dollar raised goes to drawing in voters.

If campaigns require armies, Super PACs are strike forces. 

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.  

Consultants associated with Super PACs say their existence certainly doesn’t make party committees obsolete, even if it does refine the nature of their mission.

“You still need the party at the end of the day, primarily because they can talk to the campaigns,” says Collins. “They can coordinate where we can’t.”

It also narrows the options for Super PACs when it comes to TV ads. That makes attack ads the best option for Super PACs—one of the many strategic growing pains the new outside structures are undergoing. 

“Because we can’t coordinate, we can’t always tell the unique personal attributes a candidate wants to market about him or herself,” Law says. “And of course, we don’t have original footage, which I think is the key issue that drives the success of a positive ad.”

When American Crossroads ran a positive ad for Rob Portman’s 2010 Senate race in Ohio, the state Democratic Party filed an FEC complaint. The complaint has yet to be resolved, though it shook up the donors at groups like American Action Network.

“All of the sudden, our donors started to pull back and say, ‘Are you sure this is all legal?” says Collins, who was then president of the organization. “Are you sure you don’t have a problem here? And so the effect was, if I’m going to get an FEC complaint for supporting a candidate I believe in, then I’m not going to do it.”

The NRCC adapted last cycle by getting into races earlier, says Brad Todd, whose firm OnMessage Inc. does work for the committee. Party committees can recruit and educate candidates, provide talking points and a support infrastructure for fundraising. They have storefront offices in counties across the country and institutional knowledge that lesser established outside groups are still developing.

“Parties are a brand, whereas Super PACs are projects,” says Todd.

Their presence has started to transform the party system, though. There’s evidence the additional expenditures are forcing campaign committees to be more ruthless when it comes to prioritizing resources and candidates. 

“The Democrats did that last time,” says Law. “It was pretty impressive, frankly. They let a lot of their people go with a canteen and a pistol, and left them in the desert. You need to do that, I think.”

The next chapter of evolution, says Law, will be “party committees thinking through what they can offload” to outside groups, even if the two can’t coordinate. 

When it comes to business considerations, says one Democratic consultant who asked for anonymity to speak candidly, working for an outside spending group as opposed to a campaign is “easier, more profitable and you have less accountability.”

It’s just one of the potential unintended consequences of the proliferation of outside spending groups—the potential for candidate campaigns to see a brain drain of sorts when it comes to top political talent who might decide to opt for the easier, and more lucrative, Super PAC account.

“Working for a Super PAC is certainly easier than trying to drag a candidate across the finish line from start to end,” the strategist says.    

A handful of consultants on both the right and the left also griped that outside groups already suffer from the sort of clubbiness the official party committees are often accused of when it comes to selecting consultants.

“You basically need one of your friends in there. That’s how you get in,” says another strategist who has found getting business from the outside groups tough despite previous work for two major party committees.  

Whether a critical mass of consultants opt to jump at the chance to add Super PAC work to their 2012 campaign load, and what that means for their client lists, is just one of the questions the upcoming cycle will likely answer.

For all the potential opportunities when it comes to political business, though, the arms race can’t go on indefinitely. Even the prospect of seemingly unlimited expenditures has limited returns and there’s only so much money that can be spent in pursuit of an election and only so much ad time to buy—all brakes on what a Super PAC can accomplish. 

“You do reach a point where you can’t literally pack more money into a district,” says Collins, who estimated that when it comes to effectiveness the ceiling on a typical congressional race is about $10 million. He thinks plenty of races are likely to reach that ceiling in 2012.

“How much mail can you put in a mailbox? How many phone calls can you make?” he asks. “You reach a point where you’re just spending money.”