A recent analysis by the Washington Post of presidential campaign spending came to this startling conclusion: Even adding in the super PACs, the new kind of independent group that can raise and spend unlimited amounts to elect or defeat a candidate, the total this year is a far cry from what it was four years ago among Republican candidates.

Then, the GOP field had spent about $278 million through early January. This year, the comparable figure for former Massachusetts Mitt Gov. Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others is about $133 million.

Adding spending by the top six GOP super PACs this year, a total of about $37 million, doesnít close the gap.

Should this be taken as evidence that fears about the effects of the U.S. Supreme Courtís Citizens United decision, which opened the door for the super PACs, are overblown? Since the high court reasoned in 2010 that corporations, unions and other groups have the same free speech rights as individuals, many observers have braced for unprecedented campaign spending.

At least part of the explanation for the lower spending levels among Republican presidential candidates this year can be found in the candidates themselves. Turnout numbers and exit polls have shown a lack of enthusiasm for the GOP hopefuls, especially Romney.

Some Republicans have suggested (quietly) that an Obama re-election victory is inevitable, so itís best to wait for the mid-term elections of his second term. Then, history indicates, the party that holds the presidency loses big in Congress. Under that scenario, Republicans would have Congress locked up in time to win the presidency in 2016.

Poll results this week in the swing states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania indicate that Obama is well-positioned for the coming general election campaign, with leads over his Republican rivals in all three states. In Ohio, the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows Obama up 47 percent to 41 percent over Romney and 47 percent to 40 percent over Santorum.

But as the Washington Post noted, few expect the GOPís ennui to last. Once the Republican nominating process is over and the general election campaign begins, donations to the presidential candidate committees and the super PACs will surge. Under a parliamentary system, a Prime Minister Obama would dissolve parliament now. But this is America, and we like to drag things out, with the likely result that the numbers will tighten as Election Day nears.

Under those circumstances, the super PACs could unleash millions and million of dollars in televised ads targeted at swing states such as Ohio.

But super PACs donít have to push campaign spending into the stratosphere to have a dangerously distorting effect on the political process. They have already done so in the Republican primaries, the influence of small number of very wealthy individuals helping keep Santorum and Gingrich alive.

Campaign consultants often argue that fundraising is not so much a necessary evil as an important part of the democratic process. The logic is that candidates, in seeking donations, must deal with a wide variety of individuals with varied interests.

Yes, the argument goes, these are individuals with enough money to make a maximum contribution of $2,500, but they do represent a range of viewpoints that roughly approximates those of the electorate as a whole. In that way, the candidate with the most money is the one who has the most appealing positions on the most important issues.

The emergence of the super PACs, which must operate separately from candidate committees, completely undercuts the rationale that fundraising is a reflection of broad-based support. Through super PACs, corporations, unions, associations and wealthy individuals can spend as much as they want to influence the outcome of an election.

In a low-turnout primary, with only a small part of the electorate actually voting, super PACs can have a disproportionate impact by dumping millions of dollars into television ads in a very short period of time. Thatís crucial because even though the primary season as a whole is long, it is made up of short bursts of activity, state by state.

Many conservatives have advocated a campaign finance system with unlimited contributions but quick, computerized reporting. In such as system, money would go to the candidates, who would be required to quickly report it, giving voters up-to-date information. Super PACs thus represent the worst of both worlds, unlimited contributions and spending coupled with little accountability and transparency.

Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at slhoffman@thebeaconjournal.com.