Close Close Comment Creative Commons Donate Email Add Email Facebook Instagram Mastodon Facebook Messenger Mobile Nav Menu Podcast Print RSS Search Secure Twitter WhatsApp YouTube

Free the Files Tracks $294 Million in TV Ads, With Obama Topping Buyer List

In just two weeks, volunteers for our Free the Files project have liberated information on $294 million in political ad buys.

In just two weeks, volunteers for our Free the Files project have liberated information on $294 million in ad buys made in swing states since Aug. 2.

The spending data comes from nearly 4,600 political ad contracts collected in a Federal Communications Commission database. The buys were made by candidates, super PACs, social welfare nonprofits and other groups at TV stations in 33 major markets.

Though not comprehensive and based on ad purchases that are sometimes revised, the data provides a previously unattainable snapshot of political spending in the final weeks of the campaign. Of the contracts reviewed so far, $64.3 million reflects buys by the Obama campaign, which spent more than any other group and about four times the amount spent by the Romney campaign.

The next largest bloc of spending was by two groups founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, super PAC American Crossroads and its nonprofit cousin Crossroads GPS. These groups, which are backing Mitt Romney in the presidential race, made $23.9 million in ad buys.  

While the presidential campaigns were the top ad buyers, Free the Files also captures television ads aimed at House, Senate and local races. A substantial chunk of the $75.8 million in ad buys logged so far in Ohio’s Cleveland-Akron-Canton market is flowing into the Senate race between Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown and Republican Josh Mandel.


Freeing files — while highly gratifying, of course — is not without complications. Though the FCC requires television stations to maintain orderly files, the documents are often difficult to read — as Free the Files volunteers can attest.

Nevertheless, 387 people have managed to “free” 27 percent of the television ads from 33 top markets (as published by the FCC since August), verifying details about the buyer, the amount spent and the agency placing the advertisement. Before August, the political ad data was only available by visiting television stations in person and asking for their paper political files.

Several news organizations and journalism schools are also joining the Free the Files effort, adding to the ranks of volunteers. Since teaming up with the Huffington Post in Denver, Detroit, Miami and Washington, D.C., volunteers have freed an additional 1,174 files. PBS NewsHour and Time’s Swampland are also helping recruit people. Also contributing to the effort are journalism students at Temple University in Pennsylvania, Arizona State University, Ohio's Youngstown State University and the University of North Carolina.  

To those who have volunteered so far, we thank you. To start reviewing political ads, log in at join the Free the Files group on Facebook.

Latest Stories from ProPublica

Current site Current page