Article that played on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was featured in Politico’s Morning Score, following the release of final estimates on the cost of the recalls to the public and campaigns/special interests.
Madison – Candidates and outside groups spent $80 million or more in the governor’s recall race, more than doubling the previous record for a Wisconsin gubernatorial contest, according to estimates released Thursday.
Counting the $44 million dropped on state Senate recalls last summer and the additional money spent on the four Senate recall races and a lieutenant governor’s recall contest this week, $125 million to $130 million was spent in 2011 and 2012 on recalls, says the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The Madison group, which tracks campaign spending, estimates that when final reports are in, they’ll show about $80 million has been spent on behalf of both candidates in the governor’s race. That would more than double the $37.4 million record set in the 2010 governor’s race between the same two candidates.
According to Democracy Campaign Executive Director Mike McCabe, campaigns and special interests on both sides engaged in “something akin to a nuclear arms race” to round up money to spend on advertisements targeting a minute percentage of undecided voters.
Exit polls from CNN show 86% of voters had made up their mind over a month before the election.
With more than a year’s head start, some $47 million was spent on behalf of Gov. Scott Walker, according to McCabe. Some $19 million was spent on behalf of losing Democratic challenger Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, he said. Those numbers were as of May 21; the $80 million estimate includes late spending not yet reported.
Many Barrett supporters blame his 53% to 46% defeat on the spending gap.
State Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said the cash advantage allowed Walker to “muddy the waters when it came to his jobs record, his involvement in a criminal corruption probe and his massive cuts to health care and education.”
Walker benefited from his profile as a national Republican hero, which brought in millions in out-of-state contributions, as well as a quirk in state law that allowed him to raise unlimited donations for a time to defend against a recall. The governor said his opponents also benefited from out-of-state money.
Marquette pollster and political science professor Charles Franklin said if money contributed as directly as many suggest, then Wisconsin would have seen a much wider gap in the polls.
“There is a point of diminishing returns (from campaign spending),” Franklin said, “At that kind of dollar value, you’ve surely reached that point.”
Franklin, who conducted a series of in-depth polls in the run-up to the recall election, said if the negative ads had an effect, it was likely on Barrett’s favorability rating, not the margin between the two candidates.
But as Barrett’s statewide visibility increased, voters’ opinions shifted from overall favorable to unfavorable. By the end of the race, Barrett’s favorability ratings had fallen and only 11% were unable to form an opinion.
“Given the amount of negative advertisements targeting (Barrett), if it had an effect, this is exactly what we would expect to see,” Franklin said.
Conversely, Walker’s favorability fluctuated, but never drastically changed, “not surprising” given that voters had more time to evaluate the governor, Franklin said.
Christian Schneider of the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute said both sides had substantial funding over the past year and a half. He said the spending edge for Republicans probably didn’t give them a huge advantage, given how many people made up their mind well before the election.
“It looks like the cake was baked a couple months ago,” Schneider said.
Nonetheless, party and special interest groups continued fueling the multimillion-dollar race, something McCabe and Franklin attributed to outside groups nationalizing Wisconsin’s fight.
“National interests have a national agenda,” McCabe said. “They wanted to make sure that the Wisconsin election would be a favorable agenda for them. They thought, ‘We’re not going to take any chances.’ “
Both Franklin and McCabe believe there are more high-dollar races in Wisconsin’s future, but suspect it won’t see another $80 million governor campaign for some time.
While campaigns and special interest groups may have spent $125 million or more, Wisconsin taxpayers have contributed over $20 million to the county and municipal costs of holding the 15 recall elections, as well as costs incurred by the state elections board tasked with verifying petitions and overseeing elections. The primary and general election for the statewide recalls this year cost about $18 million, while last summer’s Senate recalls cost taxpayers $2.1 million.
Jason Stein of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.