Cost of 2012 election
Outside groups are accounting for a growing amount of political spending post-Citizens United. Center for Responsive Politics

Americans are, for the most part, completely unaware of just who -- or what -- is funding the 2012 presidential campaign.

Just 25 percent of likely voters say they have heard "a lot" about outside spending this election cycle, according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, while a huge majority said they have either heard little or "nothing at all" about outside expenditures by groups not associated with the candidates or campaigns.

In fact, despite the significant role super PACs -- political action committees that can accept unlimited political donations -- have already played in the 2012 congressional and presidential campaigns, nearly half of the respondents (46 percent) could not identify the term, while another 14 percent gave incorrect responses (1 percent of respondents apparently thought it referred to video games for smartphones.)

But while those statistics don't appear to play well in a campaign finance system that appears to be increasingly dependent on outside spending -- to the point that several political transparency groups expect 2012 to be the most expensive election cycle to date -- Nick Nyhart, the president of the non-partisan Public Campaign, said Americans are very aware that there is a flow of special interest money influencing this election, even if they cannot specifically name what those interests are.

"The reality is people know the system is crooked and they want to see it changed.They may not know the details of campaign finance, but they know something is wrong," Nyhart said.

The evidence is right there in the polls, Nyhart said, referring to a recent Gallup survey that found reducing government corruption is the second-most important issue voters believe should be prioritized by the next president. Americans realize that money, particularly unaccountable money, can be a catalyst for corruption. And rather than try to educate the general public about all the twists and turns in the nation's campaign finance system, Nyhart suggested the focus should be shifted toward supporting elected officials who champion reform and "want to get us out of this mess."

2012 Election Spending Expected To Reach Almost $6 Billion

But just how big of a mess are we in?

At a first glimpse, it doesn't look that bad. Based on data from the first 18 months of fundraising and spending, the Center for Responsive Politics predicts spending in this year's congressional and presidential elections will reach about $5.8 billion, with the presidential race alone costing approximately $2.5 billion. In fact, that really isn't much more than the 2008 election cycle's $5.4 billion price tag.

The difference, however, is where that money is coming from.

The 2012 election is the first in which new, post-Citizens United rules have been in place for the entire two-year campaign cycle. The landmark decision paved the way to the creation of the super PAC after the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting unlimited political expenditures by corporations and unions, as long as those donations "do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." A subsequent decision by a federal court in v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) expanded on the Citizens United decision to actually authorize the creation of super PACs, as long as they do not coordinate with the candidates they are contributing to.

Considering that almost every person running for the presidency has a super PAC specifically devoted to their campaign -- remember how Newt Gingrich's flagging campaign managed to stay alive only after his personal friend, the billionaire Sheldon Adelson, donated millions to the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future? -- some find it hard to believe the system does not give rise to either coordination or corruption.

Outside spending will make up a far larger proportion of the total spent in the 2012 election than in previous cycles, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. As of now, the campaigns for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have, together, raised about $608 million, compared to the more than $1.1 billion raised at this point by the candidates during the 2008 election. Spending by outside groups, expected to reach a minimum of $750 million, is making up the difference.

What makes outside spending questionable is the fact that all of that money is coming from only a handful of people. Just 47 people (who gave $1 million donations) account for 57 percent of money raised by super PACs from individuals, according to a new report from Demos and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Of the approximately $230 million raised by super PACs, about 1,000 donors who gave $10,000 or more were responsible for 94 percent of that fundraising.

Adelson, by the way, didn't stop opening his checkbook after Gingrich's campaign folded. He and his wife, Miriam, have given a combined $36.3 million to super PACs in the 2012 cycle, according to the report, which points out that it would take more than 321,000 average American families donating an equivalent share of their wealth to match the Adelson's giving.

The Dark Money Dilemma

While super PACs typically disclose their donors to the FEC, there's another category of outside spending groups that are not legally required to do. Meaning, we literally do not know who is paying for millions of dollars' worth of political advertisements.

Known as 501(c)(4)'s under the Internal Revenue Service code, those groups are technically "social welfare," tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, and they've been around for years. But since Citizens United, those groups have become increasingly politically active, although it's important to note that most of them -- such as veterans' organizations, Rotary clubs and other community-oriented groups -- are legitimate social welfare groups, according to The Sunlight Foundation.

As of June, those organizations -- colloquially known as "dark money" groups -- have reported almost $12.4 million in political spending to the FEC. But, "that's only the tip of the dark money iceberg," according to the foundation, which reports that figure does not include contributions made by dark money groups to super PACs, or spending on electioneering communications (ads that mention federal candidates without explicitly urging viewers to vote for or against a certain candidate, although the message is usually plain) outside the window in which such political spending must be reported to the FEC.

Because 501(c)(4) groups are only required to report electioneering expenditures when their ads run 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary, much of their spending is unaccounted for.

As a result, both the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation report it is almost impossible to solidly predict how much dark money groups will spend this election cycle. Post-Citizens United, these groups can also spend unlimited sums on direct campaign messages, making it easier for a few individuals -- or companies -- to spend aggressively to promote their message.

A Huffington Post review of FEC records, ad buys and press releases concluded dark money groups have spent about $172 million on the 2012 election thus far. And there's much, much more to come.

A handful of conservative-leaning dark money groups -- Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by the billionaire Koch brothers -- have, together, pledged to raise close to $1 billion, presumably toward the defeat of President Obama.

In an effort to promote political transparency, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate recently attempted to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required that outside spending groups, including 501 (c)(4)'s, disclose the name of contributors who donate more than $10,000 toward election-related activities.

But the bill died in mid-July, after it was blocked in a 51 to 44 procedural motion.