When Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC was granted the ability to form last week, you could be forgiven for assuming that “SuperPAC” was some term Colbert invented to show the superiority of his independent expenditure group over everyone else’s. But no, the SuperPAC is a new term of art to describe a new kind of political action committee that will dominate the political landscape next year.

The first major ads look as if they came from a regular campaign. But they were produced and aired by groups independent of Obama and his GOP rivals.

The rise of these independent groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and other wealthy donors and spend it to help their favored candidates, could end up defining the 2012 campaign [...]

Dozens of super PACs and nonprofit groups have sprung up over the past year in response to court decisions that have tossed out many of the old rules governing federal elections, including a century-old ban on political spending by corporations.

As a result, new independent groups played a crucial role in the 2010 midterm elections and are expected to be even more dominant in 2012. The Federal Election Commission bolstered their clout further last week by allowing political candidates to help raise money for super PACs, though they remain barred from coordinating campaign strategies.

Yes, it’s possible that these SuperPACs could step on a campaign’s carefully crafted message, like in CA-36, where a SuperPAC’s Web video in support of Republican Craig Huey, depicting Democrat Janice Hahn as a stripper, has caused some controversy. But the more likely outcome for the more sophisticated SuperPACs is that they end up supplementing the campaign message, and putting the opponent on the defensive rather than embarrassing the candidate they support.

A case in point: a SuperPAC formed to specifically support Mitt Romney has raised $12 million so far this year. They will be able to fire all the negative shots at Barack Obama, or perhaps Romney’s primary opponents, while he gets to run a “positive” campaign. The SuperPACs are basically taking the role of the party committees, doing the dirty work of the campaigns. The difference is that they’re corporate funded, completely unaccountable to campaign finance laws, and almost impossible to trace. And both sides are doing it.