With less than two months before Election Day, America’s airwaves are under full-scale bombardment. Voters in the crucial swing states that will decide control of the White House and Congress face a fusillade of mostly negative TV ads, not only from the Obama and Romney campaigns but from new outside organizations such as super PACs and nonprofits.

The reshaped campaign finance system has brought an unprecedented volume of TV advertising, from sources that are more varied and more secretive than at any time in the modern era.

Much more is coming. Last week, a report by Moody’s predicted that more than $3 billion will be spent in the current election cycle on political ads, boosting their share of broadcasters’ annual revenues from historical norms of 6-7 percent to as high as 9 percent. Much of this influx comes from super PACs, which despite legal restrictions often retain indirect ties to political campaigns, and nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors. As the Center for Responsive Politics, in partnership with The Daily Beast, pointed out this week, some 844 super PACs alone currently exist. Even more striking: only 100 distinct donors account for nearly 59 percent of the $350 million raised by these entities so far.

These ads mean to shape our future, and both national and local journalists have a large role to play in covering them. Citizens deserve answers about who is paying for the ads and what those donors might want; what the ads say and how fairly they say it; and, though a distant third, the horserace questions about how effective they are.

From now through Election Day, this column will cover—and attempt to assist—the reporters and reformers who are shining a light into the murk of the ad wars. It will explain emerging sources of data and records, highlight innovative reporting and its wider implications for transparency, and offer new strategies for investigating the candidates and outside groups seeking to influence voters through the airwaves. For
example: How much are campaigns and influence groups spending on TV ads relative to internet ads, emails and direct mail, and what does that say about their strategies? Are swing state broadcasters running out of time slots for political ads—and if so, what happens then? And will the deep-pocketed new forces that have joined in this year’s ad wars bring permanent change to the campaign finance landscape?

Today, the column will begin with a guide to the crucial sources for covering the ad wars going forward. We’ve broken them down by how they can be used most effectively—and examined where their information is coming from. Our guide is far from comprehensive, and we welcome suggestions for other sources we should add into the mix.

Tracking Media Buys

Since July, local broadcasters—which receive the largest share of political advertising—have been required by law to electronically disclose ad buys. These records are expected to be uploaded “immediately absent extraordinary circumstances” when political ads are purchased, to a website managed by the Federal Communications Commission. The files include the dollar amount, station and market for each ad, and must list the leading officers of the outside group (such as a super PAC) behind the ad buy. Steven Waldman, a former adviser to the FCC, has written for CJR about the best ways to put these files to use.

However, there are important caveats. The first is that the data is incomplete: it includes only affiliates of the four major networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox) in the top 50 markets, which are estimated to run only about 60 percent of local spots, according to an estimate by the research group Kantar Media. The second is that the data is not provided in machine-readable format, and while it possible to look up purchases by network and local affiliate, it is impossible to search by the organization (say, the super PAC American Crossroads or its non-disclosing nonprofit offshoot, Crossroads GPS) that is making the purchases. That makes it difficult to examine the bigger picture and determine which groups are the heaviest hitters nationally.

For reports on the national battlefield, publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have relied on Kantar Media, a private research group that tracks political ad buys. Kantar uses a technology called MediaWatch to track ad occurrence, and bases its expenditure estimates on market rates for advertising (you can read their methodology here). If you don’t want to buy Kantar’s (expensive) data The Washington Post has created a handy tracker called Mad Money that is based on Kantar’s estimates. Mad Money is updated weekly and gives a good overview of national spending on TV campaign ads that is searchable by candidate and by outside groups.

Tracking Spending by Candidates and Outside Groups

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.