Super PACs: Super Powerful, Super Secret and Super Confusing

Newt Gingrich blames them for his downfall. They've spent twice as much money on ads in South Carolina than the candidates have themselves. And they're not going anywhere.

Super PACs - given the superlative for their ability to raise unlimited amounts of money and spend as much as they want - have become an element of the 2012 presidential race because of a Supreme Court ruling two years ago that allowed their creation. Now they're getting even more scrutiny because of faux right-wing super pundit Stephen Colbert, who is teasing some sort of presidential bid by relinquishing control of his own (real) super PAC.

Colbert doesn't have to try that hard to make fun of the role of money in politics. The rules that govern super PACs are hilarious.

Take the regulation that forbids candidates from "coordinating" with super PACs that support them, never mind that many of these super PACs are run by former aides and allies of the candidates themselves. Who's to decide what constitutes coordination?

Mitt Romney explained in December: "I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form. My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house."

That's not to say that Romney disavows the super PAC backing him, Restore Our Future. Thanks to the negative ads paid for by the group, Gingrich fell from first place in the polls before Iowa to fourth place in the vote.

For his part, Gingrich says that as long as he makes his message public, he knows his friends at the Winning Our Future PAC will hear it.

In a statement Friday, Gingrich said: "I am calling for the Winning Our Future Super-PAC supporting me to either edit its 'King of Bain' advertisement and movie to remove its inaccuracies, or to pull it off the air and off the internet entirely."

So, message received? John Grimaldi, a spokesman for Winning Our Future, said Gingrich didn't run afoul of the rule banning coordination because he was "making a specific comment" publicly, although he said the PAC is "standing by our premise" in the movie Gingrich cited, which is about Romney's tenure at Bain Capital.

Confused yet?

It's no surprise that Colbert is mocking these rules. In his Thursday-night show, Colbert cheekily signed over his PAC to his 11 p.m. counterpart, Jon Stewart, as they spoke with Trevor Potter - Colbert's lawyer who is a former Federal Election Commission chairman - about how they can and can't communicate.

Stewart asked Potter if he can hire Colbert's super PAC staff to run ads against opponents. Yes, Potter said, "as long as they have no knowledge of Stephen's plans."

"From now on, I will just have to talk about my plans on my television show and just take the risk that you might watch it," Colbert said.

Maybe it would be funnier if it weren't entirely true.

Robert Maguire, a PAC researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., said it's unlikely that Colbert's stunt will change the way super PACs try to influence the 2012 election, but that it's a brilliant effort to educate the public about one of the shadier elements of campaign finance.

"He's doing it in a way that's entertaining, and I think that people will catch on and start to understand that there's free speech, and then there's this," Maguire said.

The PACs have already spent $7 million in South Carolina, more than twice what the candidates have spent. Donors to campaigns are limited to how much they can give per cycle, while super PACs can take and spend as much as they want.

And the rich contributors who helped boost major super PACs, such as Restore Our Future (for Mitt Romney) or Make Us Great Again (Rick Perry), will be anonymous until the end of January, thanks to another weird trick that super PACs use to sway voters without revealing too much about themselves.

In an odd-numbered year (or a non-election year), the groups don't have to report their fundraising totals and donors every month. Instead, they can do so once every three months. That might seem like an arbitrary difference, but it means that the public won't know who contributed to which super PACs until the end of January, after voters pick a candidate in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

"The people voting in these states won't know by the time they're voting who's giving the money," Maguire said.