EAU CLAIRE – Politicians and their allies have spent more than $7.8 million this year alone to saturate western Wisconsin airwaves with nearly 17,000 ads attempting to sway voters in next week’s recall elections.
Need another reason to turn off the tube? As of mid-week, there were already more than 100 ads slated to run through election day.
The numbers are based on public records of political advertising purchased at WEAU, WQOW and WEUX in Eau Claire and WKBT, WXOW and WLAX in La Crosse.
State Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls), trying to retain his seat in Tuesday’s recall election, spent over $72,300 on broadcast TV ads in the Eau Claire-La Crosse TV market. His opponent, Democratic former state Rep. Kristen Dexter of Eau Claire, spent over $49,800.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has dominated the spending conversation, with his campaign and supporting independent organizations accounting for more than $4.9 million of that spending.
Democratic challenger Tom Barrett has spent just $486,000, about a tenth of Walker’s total.
Outside groups have spent another $1.3 million locally attacking Walker, as well as Moulton.
The bulk —$1,286,000 — has come from the liberal Greater Wisconsin Political Fund.
Another $365,650 was spent by independent groups to attack Dexter.
Wisconsin Manufacturing and Commerce is second among independent groups, spending about $1.05 million on Walker’s behalf. Other groups on the right, led by the Republican Governor’s Association’s committee Right Direction Wisconsin, have put almost another $1.8 million behind Walker.
Statewide, Walker has spent more than $29 million on his campaign; Barrett about $3 million. Outside interest groups on both sides have poured in another $30 million, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending.
Total spending on recall elections in the past two years has already surpassed $100 million.
To put that in perspective, prior to this year the most expensive election campaign in Wisconsin’s history was the 2010 governor’s race between Walker and Barrett. Total spending on that race, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign: $37.4 million.
“We’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Mike McCabe, WDC executive director.
Throw in ads for the presidential primary and a U.S. Senate race that’s off to an unusually early start, and half a dozen TV stations in western Wisconsin have raked in more than $8.9 million so far this year.
“I really am exhausted by the advertising,” said John Bahr, a 56-year-old La Crosse resident. “I think a lot of people want to see it over with.”
With only about 3 to 4 percent of voters still undecided in the recall, is all this advertising changing anyone’s mind?
Not likely, said Charles Franklin, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Marquette Law School poll, which has surveyed registered Wisconsin voters throughout the winter and spring.
Back in January, more than a third of respondents had no opinion about Barrett, who didn’t enter the race until the end of March. Now that number has fallen to 11 percent.
Along the way, Barrett’s unfavorability numbers have edged up, which could suggest the barrage of negative ads had some effect. But Franklin said it’s impossible to separate the effect of the ads from other elements of the campaigns.
And while Walker’s approval rating has varied, it hasn’t trended strongly one way or the other, despite ads targeting him.
“Tens of millions of dollars are spent on advertising and it doesn’t seem to move the needle much,” McCabe said. “People either love Scott Walker with a passion … or they hate him ... and there’s not much in between. I don’t think the ads are going to change that.”
So why spend all that money?
Ads help with name recognition. But mostly it’s because that’s what politicians do, Franklin said.
McCabe likens it to an arms race. Nobody wants to be outspent.
“No campaign manager at the end of an election wants to be accused of not doing as much as possible,” he said. “They throw the money at the ads even if the ads don’t seem to be working. So a lot of money goes down a big rat hole.”
Rod Stetzer of the Chippewa Herald contributed reporting for this story.