2015 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Who’s Trying to Influence Your Vote?: Tracking TV Ad Wars in the 2014 Election


About the Project

Together, the Center for Public Integrity’s widely used “Who’s Buying the Senate?” and “Who’s Calling the Shots in the States?” web apps allowed journalists and the general public to see what power players were behind more than 2.5 million TV ads that aired during the 2014 election cycle in U.S. Senate races, statewide ballot measures and state-level contests such as gubernatorial and state supreme court races.

These web apps also informed a series of stories written by Center for Public Integrity reporters, which culminated on election night, when so-called super PACs and “dark money” nonprofits helped Republicans win control of the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidates who had an edge in the ad wars typically prevailed.

We tracked advertising in these races across the country based on data purchased from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG to be able to paint a more complete picture of the forces at work in the 2014 elections beyond what would have been available from government filings alone.

No organization had ever previously tried to create the interactive web apps we produced. And no other Kantar Media/CMAG client had ever comprehensively looked into state-level advertising data, which allowed us to create a unique resource on money in state politics.

Both the “Who’s Buying the Senate?” and “Who’s Calling the Shots in the States?” web apps were updated with new data on a weekly basis through Election Day and the subsequent runoff elections — making public critical information about political spending that few other media organizations would have been able to access.

We regularly shared the findings from these web apps with Associated Press reporters and more than 100 other political reporters around the country, resulting in thousands of citations — online, in print, on TV and on radio — in nearly every state because news outlets used these tools to localize stories about political spending for their own communities. Thanks to these unique analyses and digital tools, voters across the country were armed with valuable information about the groups that had been barraging them with ads, and important stories were told that otherwise wouldn’t have been told.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, groups that are controlled neither by political candidates nor political party officials are playing increasingly prominent roles in elections at both the state and federal level. Now more than ever, creative approaches are needed to follow the money in politics and identify who is calling the shots behind the scenes.

By analyzing data from Kantar Media/CMAG, our reporters revealed that outside groups were responsible for more than two of every five TV ads in many of the hottest U.S. Senate races — and that so-called “dark money” groups that never identified their donors were responsible for at least one of every five TV ads in six of the most competitive Senate races.

In all, the “Who’s Buying the Senate?” web app tracked more than 1 million TV ads that aired during the 2014 battle for control of the U.S. Senate — ads that collectively cost more than $480 million, according to Kantar Media/CMAG estimates.

Meanwhile, the “Who’s Calling the Shots in the States?” web app tracked more than 1.5 million political TV ads that aired during the 2014 election cycle about state-level races and statewide ballot measures — ads that collectively cost more than $1 billion. The web app also showed the top political donors to candidates and ballot measure committees using data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

By analyzing these ads and donations, we exposed where the TV ad wars were being fought and who was behind them. We also identified more than $25 million that was spent in state elections by “dark money” groups that never identified their donors.

Frequent communication between our editorial and digital teams about how to share and display our findings in the most effective ways was the key to getting this series done. The web apps were designed by Center for Public Integrity news developer Chris Zubak-Skees, and additional interactive story graphics were designed by digital editor Jared Bennett. Meanwhile, reporting and data analysis for the articles and web apps was conducted by Rachel Baye, Michael Beckel, Liz Essley Whyte, Carrie Levine, Dave Levinthal, Reity O’Brien, Kytja Weir and Ben Wieder.

Publishing online allowed our digital tools to engage and inform voters across the country. The interactive items helped readers scan our findings. And the stories fostered important dialogue on social media and in other forums — including newspaper editorials, campaign materials from several of the politicians targeted by these ad blitzes and at least one U.S. Senate debate.