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There's new evidence of the power of superPACs, the political committees that can raise unregulated money. Researchers examined the flood of ads in early voting states in the Republican primaries.

They found nearly half are coming not from the candidates but from superPACs, as NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: If someone could add up all the TV ads in the Republican primaries - well, actually somebody did add them up, the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The political scientists there found that so far there have been about the same number of GOP primary ads as there were four years ago.

Erika Franklin Fowler is the director of the Wesleyan project. She says what's different - and different in a big way - is the role of outside money groups, mostly superPACs.

ERIKA FOWLER: They went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent in 2012.

OVERBY: SuperPACs are creations of several recent legal rulings, including the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010. A superPAC can raise unlimited money from corporations, unions and the wealthy. The candidate can help raise that money, but the candidate and the superPAC cannot coordinate their messages.

Fowler says that once superPACs became possible, they changed the game in the 2010 congressional races

FOWLER: 2010 was a record-breaking year in terms of political advertising. And we expect 2012 to shatter those records.

OVERBY: Right now, the records are being tested by a superPAC supporting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Take Florida where the GOP primary is tomorrow, and where the pro-Romney superPAC has been on the air 6,900 times. Here's the tone of the ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: On leadership and character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan. Restore Our Future...

OVERBY: The superPAC accounts for more than half of all the pro-Romney ads. And it compares to 210 ads total from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a pro-Gingrich superPAC. These ad totals come from a media group called Kantar Media/CMAG.

Again, Erika Franklin Fowler.

FOWLER: The voters there are getting primarily one-sided flows of information with pro-Romney arguments, and very little on the Gingrich side to counteract those.

OVERBY: But at the pro-Gingrich superPAC, consultant Rick Tyler says Gingrich is still better off with friends who are not bound by the $2,500 limit that applies to old-fashioned, direct campaign contributions. Friends like Sheldon and Miriam Adelson who recently gave the superPAC $10 million.

RICK TYLER: Let's say we were to get rid of superPACs and keep everything the same where the candidates couldn't raise money. There is no constitutional reason why Mitt Romney couldn't just write a check.

OVERBY: But even with that kind of money flying around in the GOP primaries, other political messengers are also going on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Tell President Obama, American workers aren't pawns in your political games.

OVERBY: That's from Americans for Prosperity, not a superPAC but a nonprofit group backed by conservative industrialists David and Charles Koch. Nonprofits don't have to disclose their donors.

Over the past 13 months, Americans for Prosperity has run 5,200 in battleground states. The Obama re-election campaign has also been on the air a little bit, in fact, referring to the Koch brothers as secretive oil billionaires.

Fowler says those ads also appeared in battleground states where the general election will be decided.

FOWLER: The Obama campaign likes to talk about they take a national approach to the campaign. But, you know, early advertising placement certainly tells a little bit about their hand.

OVERBY: And tomorrow, we'll get a better look at the hand of the superPACs. It's time for them to disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission. For most of the superPACs, it will be the first time they reveal where their money has been coming from.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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