The 2023 Wisconsin Supreme Court election is shaping up to be one of the most expensive court races in state history, with a huge chunk of money being funneled into political advertisements on social media and television, according to a report by AdImpact on NBC News.
The report found $9.5 million was spent on advertising even before the primary elections among the four candidates, with Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz leading the candidates on ad spending. Protasiewicz, who won the primary elections with 46% of the vote, has also booked over $6 million worth of ad time through the general election on April 4, according to NBC.
While the Supreme Court race is the most expensive in state history, high political TV ad spending in Wisconsin is not new, given historically razor thin margins in previous elections with the less than one point margin in the last two presidential elections.
Wisconsin was the top state for total midterm TV commercials for the 2022 U.S. Senate race, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
A study released in 2021 by Northwestern University Professor Brett Gordon found political TV ads drive outcomes more in tight races. Negative ads were most effective in swaying voters’ decisions, according to the study.
Both Protasiewicz and her conservative opponent Daniel Kelly have aired negative advertisements, according to NBC.
Most of Protasiewicz’s ads both pre- and post-primary focus on painting Kelly as an “extremist,” especially in light of Wisconsin’s abortion rights debate. Kelly accused Protasiewicz of being lenient against criminals and putting families at risk in some of his ads.
In addition to the TV ad blitz, voters are also seeing a massive increase in campaign advertising on social media platforms, especially for down-ballot races like the state Supreme Court elections, according to WisPolitics’ Ad Watch.
Michael Xenos, professor of communication science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on digital media on political engagement, told The Daily Cardinal the rise of political campaigns on digital media is due to ease and relatively lower costs, as well as the wide reach of social media campaigns.
“[Political ads in the digital space] are much the same as anywhere else, with the obvious differences being greater ability to target and lower costs of campaigns in terms of both ad buys and what it takes to produce the ads,” Xenos said. “It’s easier to make a digital ad, especially for social [media], compared to shooting a TV ad or even producing a print piece, and costs of promoting them are much lower.”
Data from Facebook’s Ad Library shows political campaigns are also targeting voters online based on specific interests. Campaign strategists can use Facebook’s audience tools to filter their target demographic based on a variety of factors, including interests and behavior trends.
For example, Janet for Justice ads on Facebook calling Kelly out for allegedly defending child sex predators who lured and molested young girls were mostly shown to women in Wisconsin, according to public data from Facebook Ads Library.
“In a world where only mass media was available and targeting opportunities were minimal, campaigns had to create broad-based messages that would appeal to the electorate as a whole,” Xenos said. “[Targeting] allows them to only spend money to send messages that they have reason to believe will resonate with the recipients.”
The state Supreme Court election is one of the most critical in 2023 with contentious issues like abortion rights and gerrymandering on the ballot. While Protasiewicz won the primary elections relatively comfortably against Kelly, the race remains tight, and candidates have thus turned to base messaging to win an election that will decide the court’s majority.
Wisconsin voters will decide who fills the open state Supreme Court seat in the state’s April 4 general election.