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
Candidates and outside groups are required to disclose their expenditures—on ads that directly support or oppose federal candidates—to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC’s website details spending on presidential and congressional races, and covers a variety of campaign activities that go well beyond television ads. But the site can be tricky to navigate, and often yields a long list of disclosure forms that can be difficult to untangle quickly.
A number of news organizations have created applications that put the FEC data on outside influence groups into more digestible form.
• The New York Times tracks overall spending by super PACs and nonprofits on television ads and other communications intended to sway voters.
• ProPublica’s PAC Track specifically tracks super PACs, and provides easy-to-use information on their latest expenditures and their biggest contributors.
• The Center for Public Integrity has a searchable database of profiles written by their reporters about PACs, nonprofits and their donors, which include lists of these organizations’ leaders and who they have worked for in the past.
• OpenSecrets.org debuted a searchable set of profiles last week that includes more than 20,000 organizations.
• A standout resource for research on outside spending is the Sunlight Foundation’s Follow the Unlimited Money project. Its database offers a detailed and user-friendly breakdown of outside groups’ expenditures—and my next column will explore what these disclosures can reveal.
Factchecking the Ads
Each time a new volley is fired in the ad wars, one of the first questions that emerges is whether its claims are true. A new interactive by The Daily Beast seeks to compile the political ads airing across the country, and weigh each ad’s claims against the verdicts of third party factcheckers. The ads can be searched by the campaign or outside group that is airing them, but not by region or the title of the advertisement.
If you’re in a hurry to find out whether an ad is telling the truth, there’s an app for that as well. The Super PAC iPhone app—The Daily Beast’s partner in their interactive—works like the music recognition app Shazam, recognizing the sound of an ad and immediately providing access to independent factcheckers findings about its accuracy. The factchecks are provided through links to organizations such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.
An ad can be unfair, of course, even though factual, and there is no substitute for informed and unbiased journalistic judgment.
We invite you to add resources to the comment section here, and to suggest ideas for future CJR posts about the ad wars.