Voting may be free, but getting on the ballot is not.
david s. holloway/cnn
Voting may be free, but getting on the ballot is not.

Story highlights

In an In Depth series of reports this week, CNN explores super PACs

CNN will assess the impact that money has -- and hasn't -- had in this electoral cycle

We'll look at what it costs to launch a campaign and how much you could make if you win

Editor’s Note: Mark Whitaker is executive vice president and managing editor of CNN Worldwide. He is responsible for leading editorial coverage across CNN’s multiple platforms and directing the overall approach, tone and scope of CNN’s reporting.

CNN —  

You know that a news story has broken through, as we like to say in the journalism business, when Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart start playing it for laughs. In the last few weeks, the dynamic duo of Comedy Central has had a field day with the subject of super PACs, those fundraising machines that can raise unlimited donations to fund political ads, provided that they are not officially affiliated with a specific candidate.

Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker

When Colbert launched his mock run for “President of the United States of South Carolina,” Stewart came on his show to announce that he would head up the “Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super PAC,” swearing that it would have no ties to the friend whose hand he was holding on the set.

It’s become an easy talking point that this will be the most expensive presidential race in history, and that super PACs could tip the outcome. But in a special In Depth series of reports, CNN will take a hard look at that conventional wisdom – exploring what super PACs are, what they do, who funds them, and how much power they really have. These special reports will air daily this week across all our prime-time and daytime television shows – including “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,” “John King, USA,” “Anderson Cooper 360˚,” “Piers Morgan Tonight” and “Erin Burnett OutFront” – and across all our digital platforms.

Super PACs vs. the little guy: Why do you donate?

We will go behind the scenes at American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s conservative PAC that helped launched the trend (and the conspiracy theories). We’ll profile Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire who wrote a $5 million check to a PAC that waged a nasty air war against Mitt Romney in South Carolina, helping to pave the way for Newt Gingrich’s stunning primary victory on Saturday. We’ll air an investigation into how super PACs have outmaneuvered a bewildering obstacle course of campaign finance regulations, and given rise to calls for a whole new maze of do’s and don’ts.

At the same time, we’ll try to put some much-needed context around a subject that has become grist for knee-jerk partisan rhetoric. We’ll report on how Democrats – Definitely Not Coordinated with President Barack Obama! – are also playing the super PAC game. (We’ll also profile some “heavy hitters” who will be openly supporting the president in 2012 and others who have turned their back on him since 2008.)

We’ll analyze the controversial “Citizens United” ruling by the Supreme Court that sanctioned unlimited corporate and union donations to nonaffiliated PACs, showing how it eliminated some troublesome inequities in the previous financing rules while adding new complexities. We will also look at how much money you need nowadays to run for office at the local, congressional and Senate levels, and at how much politicians stand to make personally while in office and once they leave.

As CNN’s team of political reporters and analysts decamps from South Carolina to cover the Florida primary this week, they will assess the impact that money has – and hasn’t – had in this electoral cycle so far. How much did it determine who threw their hat into the Republican ring in the first place and who stayed away? How different would things be now if Romney and the (definitely not coordinated) PAC run by his former aides hadn’t had millions to savage Gingrich with negatives ads in Iowa, or if Adelson hadn’t put up his $5 million to tear down Romney in South Carolina? And could money help alter the dynamic of the GOP primary contest yet again in Florida, given the staggering costs of organizing across such a large state and buying political ads in so many expensive local media markets?

For all the hyperventilation about super PACs, we’ll also examine all the ways in which the narrative of this campaign shows that money still isn’t everything in politics: the flameout of Rick Perry’s deep-pocketed campaign, the staying power of Ron Paul’s grass-roots movement, the number of times that the “free media” of press coverage have shifted the momentum overnight, from the latest debate to the personal scandal du jour.

And on, we will solicit iReport videos from scores of ordinary citizens across America who have donated $50 or less to a political campaign this year and who want to deliver a simple message: This is what I want for my money! For here at CNN, our aim isn’t to take sides or tell you what to think. It’s to give you the news and knowledge you need to make up your own mind – and the confidence to make your own voice heard.