Creating new ways for the peanut gallery to take part in elections has been a long American tradition. We had political bosses, we had Tammany Hall, we had 527s and political committees -- the list is extensive.
The Citizens United decision in 2010 allowed one of the most expansive reformations of the political dabbling class's role in elections. Since then, a vast infrastructure has appeared to facilitate this expensive hobby of the American elite -- there are super PAC law firms, super PAC umbrella groups, nonprofits that parse through super PAC documentation, shell companies that hide the money that individuals and organizations spend in super PACs and 501(c)4s -- and super PACs have learned many a lesson about what doesn't work when dumping millions of dollars on an election.
What they haven't quite figured out is what does work.
Super PACs have existed in one midterm cycle and one presidential cycle, and are currently going through round two on midterms. Strategies that worked exceptionally well for conservative outside groups in 2010 proved a complete failure in 2012. Liberal outside groups proved especially efficient in their success in 2012, while they proved especially unsuccessful in their inefficiency in 2010. How 2014 plays out is a complete unknown on the campaign-finance front, and will likely further confuse our ideas of whether super PACs are ruining/improving/doing nothing to elections, regardless of the outcome.
2016 will make things even worse -- even though it will be the second presidential election after the Citizens United decision, it will also be the first without an incumbent president. What will the ultimate effect of this be on the race? Who knows? But the presence of outside groups has had one effect on 2016 already -- moving forward the invisible primary by about a year before the already impossible early record set by the last election cycle.
Soon after President Obama was sworn in for his second term, there were already a handful of pro-Hillary Clinton outside groups collecting money for a primary season three years away -- Hillary FTW and Ready for Hillary, for example. Priorities USA, which was the main pro-Obama PAC in 2012, has announced that it will support Clinton if she runs. There are also several anti-Hillary Clinton groups, including Dick Morris's Just Say No to Hillary PAC, the Hillary Project and Stop Hillary PAC.
The effect of so much early fundraising? Giving the frontrunner an even more enviable air of inevitability than in previous election cycles. In 2008, Clinton was the all but certain candidate months before the election. For 2016, she managed to completely corner the market years in advance. However, Hillary didn't end up winning the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Four years earlier, the frontrunner who was miles ahead of every other Democratic presidential candidate, Howard Dean, also didn't end up winning the nomination.
This far ahead of the 2016 election, we can't be certain that Clinton's new fundraising advantage has made it even harder for less well-known (and less-funded) candidates to have a chance with voters. All we know is that super PACs have simply exacerbated a premature inevitability problem that had already existed for many a previous presidential primary. Super PACs have yet to figure out how to be as influential in presidential elections as they have in state races -- and the Hillary Clinton groups haven't proved they've figured out the secret formula quite yet.