Framing the Debate: How Walker Won the Ad War

Since 1993, the Center for Media and Democracy has tracked corporate spin and government propaganda. Because we are based in Madison, Wisconsin, we had an up-close view of the unprecedented television air war surrounding the recall election of Governor Scott Walker.

Final numbers are not yet in, but the recall race is expected to cost some $70-80 million, the most expensive in Wisconsin's history, dwarfing the previous total of $37 million spent in the 2010 gubernatorial election. Most of this money was spent on behalf of Governor Walker and most of it was spent on television.

One year ago, 54 percent of Wisconsinites disapproved of the job that Walker was doing and said they would pick former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold over Walker by a 52-42 margin and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett over him by a 50-43 spread.

In the year that followed, while the grassroots swung into recall mode and Democrats struggled to find a candidate and get their act together, Walker prepared for armageddon. Walker spent unprecedented sums on a seamless eight month public relations campaign that dwarfed the television expenditures of his opponent. Below, we point to some of the most effective ads Walker's team created to turn his numbers around and win this historic race.

Early Money Frames the Issue, 12 Point Shift in Opinion about Recall

Exit polling showed that 70 percent of Wisconsinites thought that recalls be attempted "never" or only for official misconduct (keep in mind that 36 percent of these people still voted for Barrett). Extrapolating from this poll, it now appears to be common wisdom that "recalls aren't popular" and -- some even argue -- should not be attempted.

Wrong conclusion. A November 2011 St. Norbert's poll said that 58 percent of Wisconsinites supported the recall of Governor Walker. Only 38 percent thought it was a bad idea.

How to explain a 12 point shift in public opinion? Walker went up on air in November 2011 (seven months before the June 2012 recall) with an ad featuring "Kristi," a high school teacher who effectively frames the issue. "In my opinion, it feels a little bit like sour grapes," says Kristi with a killer Wisconsin accent, "It feels like -- we didn't get our way, we want to change the outcome." This message was hammered home with dark money ads in the final weeks of the election with an unknown group called Coalition for American Values, who featured actors who "did not vote for Walker," but bring the message that recalls "are not the Wisconsin way." Not a single ad was cut by pro-recall groups explaining why they were recalling Walker.

Other early money was spent on television by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group, with an intensive ad campaign attempting to convince Wisconsinites that Walker's budget cuts were working. Eventually, the Koch's alone would outspend the democratic candidate $10 million to $3.9 million, or over 2:1.

Muddy the Waters with New Stats, Turn a Jobs Problem into a Plus

The exit poll showed that 54 percent approved of Scott Walker's job performance. Given that official Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers put Wisconsin dead last in job creation (with an April 2011-April 2012 loss of 21,400), this is quite an endorsement. How did Walker do it?

Walker's team knew the Wisconsin economy was in a dead stall and that the jobs situation would be a problem, so they decided to go big on the jobs theme. "The Federal Reserve says we have the best economic outlook in years," says a March 2012 ad. The same report sited by Walker actually has the Philadelphia Federal Reserve predicting that Wisconsin would continue to contract, one of only six states in the nation that would continue to lose jobs.

But Walker's best jobs ad went up in April of 2012, days before the next round of damaging jobs numbers were set to be released by the U.S. government. Walker pushed out an ad touting a jobs gain of 33,200 jobs, a number that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Politifact team dissected and labeled "mostly false."

Even though liberal groups cut an effective response, Walker's ad muddied the waters on a critical vulnerability.

If All Else Fails, Exploit Dead Children

Even with tens of millions spent by the campaign directly, and with surrogates like the Republican Governor's Association ($9 million) and Americans for Prosperity ($10 million) spending heavily, Walker could not get his poll numbers over 50 percent until the final weeks of the campaign. How did he do it? An incredibly nasty ad campaign linking his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, to the beating death of a small child.

A May 22, 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation showed that the Milwaukee Police Department was under reporting violent crime. Police officials blamed human and computer error, and there is no evidence that the Milwaukee Mayor knew anything about the under reporting, but Walker turned the report into an opportunity to smear his opponent in a manner that suggested criminal wrongdoing. One ad blamed the Mayor directly for the under reporting, as if he were coding the crimes himself in the police department database. "Mayor Tom Barrett failed to report as many as 1,300 violent crimes in his city. ... [A] prominent criminologist said it raises the question whether the crimes were deliberately misreported." The criminologist objected to the misleading ad, to no avail.

But in the most offensive ad, Walker used a dead child to make his point. The ad features the pixelated face of an African American child, and says, "This two year old spent six days in intensive care after being severely beaten, but Tom Barrett's police department didn't consider it a violent crime." Four TV ads were cut on the same theme, and even more graphic ads aired on the radio in a pounding rotation.

In the final debate, Barrett charged that Walker was using a dead child to advance his political campaign, and defended his police department: "Milwaukee police arrested that man and put him in jail, but did not use the right code when reporting the crime... you should be ashamed of that commercial, Scott Walker," Barrett charged, hoping to shame Walker into taking down the ads. But the ads stayed up, and Democrats were unable to mount an effective response.

Walker's Numbers Finally Start to Move

Walker's Willie Horton-style attack ads, which aired statewide in largely rural, white Wisconsin, falsely linked Barrett to a horrible crime and by extension all the pathologies of a big city. The crime ads were also the perfect antidote to Barrett's ads asking questions about Walker's criminal defense fund and his role in the "John Doe" criminal investigation of embezzlement and political corruption being run out of the Milwaukee District Attorney's office. "If Tom Barrett is covering up hundreds of violent crimes, what else is he hiding?" Walker's ads demanded, effectively turning the tables on the Mayor.

The ads were vile, deceptive, and effective. Walker's numbers finally started to move in the final two weeks from 50 to 51 to 52 and 53, according to sources with access to daily tracking.

Walker won on June 5, 2012 with a margin of 53-46. The win was not due to the fact that people don't like recalls. The win was due largely to the fact that Barrett was outspent and outdone in the air war. The final deluge of harshly negative ads was a key factor that put Walker over the top. Stay tuned for more of the same in the fall of 2012.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.


Barrett was out-spent, out-smarted and out-almost-everything-elsed. But please don't say that Barrett was out-classed. That is just insulting. There is nothing classy about our current governor or his campaign

Dear Mary: I think the intent was out-classed in the sense of a larger class of ship or submarine versus outdone in manners or grace, but I have made an edit to clarify this by substituting "outdone." Lisa

Once again the "framework" of the question determines the outcome of the response and reply. The methodology is not simply about money and the capacity to "Out" or out-do anything. The essential consideration here is that big money has a sales market mentality and the consumer has a conditioned reflex to this "institutionalized" (as in mental health...) behavior modification that is lock-stepping and straight-jacketing conditioned responses to various stimuli from fear to reinforced membership. What is unacceptable is the fact that professional media (in lock step with advertizement practices) must be well aware of these techniques and do not point out the practices to less educated community members. More than this consideration, and here I call upon Mary to pay attention, the techniques that I witnessed on TV were identical to standard practices utilized by Union-Busting contractors. The documentaries produced by these sleezebags are identical to the "infomercial" style commercials that were run with cliche' soundbites in redundant confirmation of a decisive conviction without thought or substantiated evidence. Peer decision making for the herd. Check it out on-line (Youube)under union busting, and you will find that these are formula tactics that work over and again...because unions don't communicate with each other...and divide and conquer is the Mode of Operation directly stated by the Big Money pros. Whatever happened to the counter-argument for the Union? UNITED WE STAND! DIVIDED WE FALL ! WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO WAKE UP AND SEE THE WRITING ON THE WALL? It is not so much the money as much as the same techniques that utilize behavior modification and conditioning techniques to drive the irrational rut and collar response of a consumer and market dependent social insecurity. Propaganda and brain washing are old school compared to sound bites and conditioned reflexes of a market driven society in mental uncertainty!

You do want to make your case, Don't you? You can have provided the ad (or ads?) in which multiple Wisconsinites, who didn't vote for Walker, expressed a disapproval of recall. That would have been more effective than the ad you did show with one citizen saying the same thing. It's important for the Right to re-define democracy to mean it's opposite. It's clear from the failed recall vote (from progressives' standpoint) that they are having some success on that front. Citizens, too often, and frighteningly, think that democracy means electing someone who then must be left alone to do the job he or she is paid to do, no matter what destruction he or she unleashes.