August 17, 2011

$45 a vote, and for what?

Now that Wisconsin’s summer bout of recall madness has ended, let’s run the numbers.

About 769,000 votes were cast in the state’s eight primary and nine general elections for state Senate, according to unofficial results.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog group, estimates that total spending on the races by special interest groups and (to a much lesser extent) the candidates’ campaigns will fall between $35 million and $40 million.

That breaks down to somewhere between $45 and $52 for each vote cast.

But the campaigns, waged in TV markets that went well beyond the geographic boundaries of the recall districts, had an impact beyond the votes they helped sway. Voters all over the state were exposed to a glut of toxic messages, in which public servants were painted as public enemies.

“The advertising was overwhelmingly negative,” notes Ken Goldstein, a former University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor who ran the Wisconsin Advertising Project and now heads a national company that analyzes campaign ads.

One popular theory is that the purpose of negative campaign advertising is to dissuade people from voting at all.

Goldstein disagrees, saying the best available evidence shows that “negative advertising mobilizes and does not demobilize.” And, in fact, the turnout in these recalls was considered healthy for elections held in mid-summer without a big-name race on top of the ballot.

But what about the majority of Wisconsin voters who live in one of the 24 state Senate districts that did not have a recall election? What effect does this barrage of negative messages have on them?

To get a sense, I quizzed about a dozen people at the weekly farmer’s market in downtown Richland Center on Saturday, Aug. 13, between the two sets of recall elections.

Richland Center is in the Senate district represented by Republican Dale Schultz, who was not targeted for recall. To the west, Democrat Jennifer Shilling unseated Republican Dan Kapanke. To the east, Republican Luther Olsen beat back a challenge from Democrat Fred Clark. Both were intensely competitive contests propelled by ads in the La Crosse and Madison television markets, respectively.

Most of the people I spoke to were deluged with messages for these races in which they couldn’t vote. None of them was favorably impressed.

“The ads told me who I shouldn’t vote for, not who I should,” remarked Jane Leussler, one of the vendors. The messages, she said, were so negative they seemed to suggest “it would be better to have no government.”

Jeff Johanning, an accountant who lives in Fennimore and works in Viroqua, considered the recall elections “a waste of taxpayers’ money” and tuned out the ads he was exposed to. “It didn’t affect me.”

“It just seemed to me that the candidates didn’t do much to promote themselves,” said Paul Swanson, a resident of northern Illinois who’s spending the summer in western Wisconsin. “The outside interests did it all.”

And the ads were so focused on attacking the other candidate that, for a time, Swanson said, “I didn’t realize Clark and Olsen were running against each other.”

Jane Mueller of Richland Center felt “continually bombarded” by the ads. “I think you get sort of numb to them.” She added that as a voter she would give little credence to anything an ad has to say: “They tell half-truths.”

Sharon Storms, a Richland Center resident who teaches in Reedsburg, said she was “disgusted” by how difficult it was to know who was paying for the ads she saw. She said she did a number of Internet searches to check the veracity of the claims being made but found it difficult to find authoritative information.

Let’s give the last word to Bob Naegele, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Richland Center: “I’m glad the advertising has stopped.”