Who’s trying to influence your vote?

A guide to our political TV ad trackers

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 Updated:

The Center for Public Integrity is investigating who is trying to influence the 2014 elections through television advertising, part of a broader effort to consider the sources behind political power in this country.

What is the Center tracking?
The Center created two apps to track spending on political advertising on television throughout the U.S.:

How can I use this?
This information can help you see who is paying to influence your vote in the 2014 election.

The opening views of the State Ad Wars TrackerWho’s Buying the Senate? and the Ballot Measure Tracker each show at a glance where the biggest expenditures on TV ads have been.

For the state and Senate trackers,you can view this by state totals, or switch to viewing it per eligible voter.

The total expenditures are broken down by candidates, groups and parties. In some races you may be interested to see that groups spend more on TV ads than either candidates or parties.

Click on your state to see who’s running ads either supporting or targeting a candidate or ballot measure, and even watch a few examples of these. You may have already seen these on your TV: now find out who’s behind them.

While you’re on a state page: click on a group name to find out what it is, how many ads it has sponsored, and to see who it is spending money to support and who it is spending against (in negative advertising).

The numbers are helpful barometers of how actively a candidate or group has been using television advertising.

How do I find out who is behind the ads about ballot measures?

The ballot measure tracker shows the TV ad spending on statewide measures, ranked by estimated spending. You can click on a ballot initiative’s name to get more details. Once on the state-level page, hover over the measure’s name to learn what the initiative would change if approved. You can see here how much TV airtime the proponents and opponents have bought. The site also features information from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, where available, about the donors behind the committees that are advertising on the measure.

Why should I care about the amounts spent on political television advertising?

Television advertising is one of the most popular and most expensive ways to reach voters. Tracking it provides one of the most comprehensive and comparable pictures available of campaign spending across the states. Money doesn’t always win races, but it often helps push a candidate or ballot measure to victory — or defeat. Tracking these ads helps identify who is trying to influence voters and change the outcome of elections. The ads also provide one of the most comprehensive and comparable pictures available of campaign spending across the states.

Who is paying for these ads?
Airtime for political advertising is purchased by candidate committees, political parties and independent groups.

I see a breakdown by parties, candidates and groups. What’s the difference?
Political parties and independent groups are more likely to run negative ads that attack a candidate, allowing the candidate supported by the group to appear above the fray. Independent groups typically can accept money from corporations and unions, which candidates running for office cannot do in some states. Such independent groups often don’t have to disclose the same information about the sources of their funding as candidates or parties.

Where does this information come from?
The Center for Public Integrity analyzed data from Kantar Media/CMAG — CMAG stands for Campaign Media Analysis Group — which monitors television signals for political advertising nationwide. The group counts ads each time they run. Then, using a proprietary formula, it estimates how much it costs to place each ad. These may not match up exactly with the true costs of placing an ad. Think of the cost estimates as a well-informed guess, which can provide useful points of comparison.

What period does this information cover?
The information covers political television advertising that ran starting Jan. 1, 2013, geared toward the 2014 elections.

How often are these numbers updated?
The trackers will be updated weekly on Thursdays, and the Center for Public Integrity will be writing stories about what we find — both on the state level and for the U.S. Senate.

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Which ads are included?
Kantar Media/CMAG monitors television ads that run on local broadcast TV in all 210 media markets, as well as national network and national cable TV, but it doesn’t monitor local cable stations. So if an ad runs on a local cable channel, as many are expected to in the 2014 election, it won't be counted here.

Does this include digital ads, such as those on YouTube? Ads from radio? 
No, these numbers only reflect the ads that ran on television. Kantar Media/CMAG monitors most TV stations, but not local cable stations, online or the radio. It also does not include print advertisements. More details

How does this compare to what is available from government sources? 
The estimates only cover television ads, not other kinds of political messages, such as ads that appear on radio or online. The estimates also only include how much money a candidate or organization spent to place the ad, not to make it. And it only counts the ads once they air. Records filed at the Federal Communications Commission, for example, can show TV airtime that groups pay to reserve for the future.
It also includes all ads containing overt candidate advocacy as well as all “issue ads” that mention a candidate but don’t overtly call for the candidate’s election or defeat. Federal Election Commission records only capture ads containing overt advocacy, with the exception of “issue ads” that run immediately before a primary or general election.

Why are the spending estimates different from other sources?
These numbers represent actual television ads that have already run. It doesn’t include the cost of producing the ads. It also doesn’t include ads that run on local cable, online or radio. It doesn’t include ads booked to run in the future. It does include ads that don’t expressly advocate for election or defeat. And it’s based on estimates. Counts from other sources are often different in one or more of these ways.

How is the spending per eligible voters calculated?
Spending estimates are divided by the number of eligible voters for each state, which includes U.S. citizens above the age of 18 as counted by the July 2014 Current Population Survey. The population figures, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, were the most recent available at the start of the project in September.

Have more questions about these numbers? Want to interview one of our reporters for an article you’re writing?
Reporters should include what state and race they are writing about and their deadlines.

  • Senate races: email federal political reporters Dave Levinthal or Michael Beckel.

  • State-level races: email states team leader Kytja Weir or call our statehouse reporters’ hotline at 202-750-0686.

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