Polling News

Wisconsin Delivers Grim Message

April 06, 2023

Tuesday brought disappointing news for Republicans hoping to maintain a conservative majority on Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, that flipped this week to a liberal majority for the first time in 15 years. 

Why It Matters: Many analysts depict the race’s outcome as a referendum on abortion, but the outcome cannot be explained by just one factor.  It was also the most expensive judicial race in history, with reports released on Monday suggesting the spend in the race was $42 million. 

The double-digit win for the liberal Milwaukee Judge Janet Protasiewicz is significant> Most swing state; most races are decided by inches, not miles. The issue of abortion was important and so was the spending, Protasiewicz enjoyed an overall spending advantage of $6 million or more on her conservative opponent. Protasciewicz had the spending advantage in both the February non-partisan primary and between her campaign and outside organizations, an even bigger edge in the Tuesday run-off. 

By The Numbers:

  • In January, Protasceiwicz was the first candidate in the race to make an ad buy, reserving $700,000 of television over the three weeks leading up to the Feb. 21 primary.
  • By the end of the February Primary, Protasciewicz had spent $1.25M in the primary election.
  • Just 5 days after the primary, pro-Protasciewicz media spending reached $5.4 million.
  • By March 15, $9.1M in pro-Protasciewicz ads had been run in Wisconsin.
  • As of Monday, Protasciewicz had spent $12M with at least an additional $11.2M in outside spending, compared to former Justice Dan Kelly’s $2.2M in campaign spend and $15.4M in outside spending. 

A Game of Frequency & Timing: Political ad prices vary significantly. Campaign committees receive a significantly lower rate compared to outside groups, and this was made incredibly clear by this race. According to a mid-March piece by the New York Times, there had been three times as many pro-Protaciewicz ads as there were pro-Kelly ads in the Badger State. The result was a staggering 10-point rout of the former Justice in a state that had favored judicial conservatives for multiple cycles prior.

The Bottom Line: Media spending cannot be outsourced. While candidates can still win being outspent in a race’s final ten days, it’s virtually impossible to win after being outspent in the six weeks leading up to an election’s final ten days. The was the situation suffered by Kelly, whose late spending and reliance on outside resources proved fatal in a race where every gross rating point of ad coverage on television matters. Republican candidates should see this as a cautionary tale of failing to define themselves early and the perils in outsourcing their primary messaging method.

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