This is only the first presidential election in the Citizens United era of unlimited spending, and the first since 1976 in which both presidential candidates spurned the public finance system. All the big players are learning lessons about how the process works in an ugly new world, and will be fine-tuning their strategies once they determine what was effective and what was not.
There may be changes in how unlimited money is spent, but now that it has been unleashed, only a constitutional amendment or a careful system of regulation can bottle it back up. That will remain one of the most urgent challenges facing every lawmaker.
Most of the approximately $593 million that has been spent so far by outside groups has gone into television advertising, and it has oversaturated hundreds of markets in the important swing states, in combination with ads from the campaigns themselves.
Iowans have had to endure an unending stream of political ads, in some cases six times as much as in 2008. The two presidential campaigns and associated "independent" groups have run more than 100,000 ads to win the state's six electoral votes, as many as six an hour in Sioux City. And that's nothing compared with Ohio, where ads run all day , as many as 10 per half-hour.
In many cases, reporters and campaign officials have found that the ads have reached the point of diminishing returns. Viewers are muting them, or mentally tuning them out.
"People just aren't paying attention to political ads the way they used to," David Winston, a Republican pollster, told The Wall Street Journal.
Chances are super PACs and related "social welfare" groups will find more effective ways of spending their money. There is evidence that many groups are moving their spending from the presidential race to congressional contests, where they can have a bigger impact, and are buying vehicles other than TV ads. Karl Rove, founder of one of the biggest Republican groups, American Crossroads, recently said the group would spend $32 million to keep the party's House majority. The group intends to spend on research, direct mail and calls, and polling, along with ads.
More than two-thirds of the independent money in this election cycle has been spent on behalf of Republicans, according to the Sunlight Foundation, and the business interests behind those hundreds of millions are not going to give up the influence and the power that spending has given them. That's the reason this unlimited money is so corrupting: win or lose, it binds lawmakers, corporations and special interests ever closer.