As Americans cast their votes for the next president, the Obama campaign and its supporters have maintained an unexpected advantage in the ad wars—defying predictions that the Democrat would be drowned out by a flood of cash from deep-pocketed conservative groups (at least before a spending splurge by outside groups this past weekend).

But outside groups have propelled Republicans to a strong advantage in another set of races: the battle for the US House of Representatives. Republican candidates have run more ads than their Democratic opponents in 104 contested races, while Democrats hold the edge in 77, according to spot counts by Kantar Media’s CMAG.

And the Republican edge in the House is driven primarily by outside groups such as super PACs and nonprofits.

Among ads sponsored by candidates and parties, Kantar finds, there is almost exact parity—Republicans run more ads in 89 races and Democrats run more ads in 87. But among ads run by outside groups, Republicans hold the advantage in 43 races, compared to 27 for Democrats, giving the GOP an additional boost that provides most of their overall advantage.

Experts say that an advertising advantage is even more important in more local races than at the presidential level, because voters have less prior knowledge of the candidates, and because money goes farther since fewer spots are aired overall.

At the presidential level, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute and a political science professor at SUNY Albany “you can think of an extra million dollars in advertising as squirting an eye dropper in a thunderstorm.” But advertising is “likely to be more effective in down ballot races,” he said.

Of course, outside groups are fully entitled to run last-minute ads, and both parties have come to rely on them heavily. But voters deserve as much information as possible about who is trying to win them over in the election’s final hours. Particularly in contests in the House and further down the ballot, reporters should be on the lookout for attacks from unknown sources and national players seeking to tip the local scales.

The role of outside groups in House races poses a challenge to reporters in contested districts. Some are “dark money” groups that do not reveal their donors, making it difficult, although often not impossible, to inform voters about who is spending to influence their decisions. Others are known as “pop up” groups because they emerge suddenly in the weeks before the election to run political ads, and often disappear just as soon after leaving a trail of questionable claims on their official paperwork.

And are these ads accurate? Reporters need to find out. At the presidential level, an analysis in September by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy found that 28 percent of spending on third party ads went to spots that were judged by fact-checkers to contain at least one deception. Comparable figures are not available for ads that targeted House races.

Aside from fact-checking the ads and trying to figure out who is buying them, there is also a simpler step that reporters can take to ensure that voters are acting on the best possible information as they head to the polls: Prominently cover House and local races on Election Day, when some readers begin to consider down-ballot races.

Straightforward descriptions of the candidates’ positions and the key issues debated in the campaign can be most useful for voters, as they try to penetrate the political spin as make their final decisions.


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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.