With the most important elections following the Citizens United decision, campaign spending rose in both the presidential and Wisconsin’s Senate races, much of it from outside groups and on negative advertising.
Of the $73 million spent by all the candidates leading up to Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate election alone, the Center for Responsive Politics reported $42.7 million, or 58 percent, came from outside spending to oppose either Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin or former Gov. Tommy Thompson.
The previous record for spending in a Wisconsin U.S. Senate race was set in 2010, when Republican Sen. Ron Johnson defeated incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold. Total spending in that race was about $38 million, about $5 million of which came from outside spending, according to the CRP.
The reason for such an increase in outside spending this election cycle is likely due to the 2010 Supreme Court case between Citizens United and the Federal Election Commission, according to Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
“A supermajority of citizens has emerged that believe too much money is in politics and believes the unlimited spending unleashed by Citizens United is poisonous to democracy and is destructive to the whole political process,” McCabe said. “It’s a disaster for America, this ruling.”
In the future, the political class has to come to terms with how much all the attack ads turn off potential voters, McCabe said.
As of now, however, he said the attack ads demonstrate what campaigns have “degenerated into.”
“All it does is make people hate politics and hate politicians more every election,” he said. “It undermines the public’s trust in the system, and it undermines people’s faith in elected officials once they win an election. I don’t see how it leads anywhere good. It’s really insanity, but it’s insanity everybody in the political class seems to embrace.”
University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs said the attack ads might have made the difference in allowing Obama to reclaim his presidency.
Downs said Obama attacked Romney instantly and effectively instead of focusing on his own plans for the country, something that he said Baldwin did as well.
“Democrats won significantly in part because they were able to be negative on Romney right away — and it stuck,” Downs said. “Neither Obama nor Baldwin had much to say about their own agendas.”
James Baughman, a UW journalism professor, agreed attack ads did play a role in Obama’s victory, especially since former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney did not spend enough in the summer while Obama attacked him through ads.
However, Baughman said he does not think spending was the deciding factor in Tuesday’s election. Rather, Baughman said Obama’s ground game and getting out the vote efforts was an important reason why he won, which had nothing to do with advertising.
As for the Citizens United decision, which many predicted would benefit Republicans, Baughman said it might be harmful to democracy, but still gives Democrats a chance.
“I don’t think [the ruling] is the catastrophe that some people think it is,” Baughman said. “I don’t think it’s a good thing, but I think what this election proved is all those corporate benefactors couldn’t elect Romney.”