Tomorrow, voters in Wisconsin head to the polls to elect a new Supreme Court justice, to vote on a constitutional amendment to limit the governor’s veto power, and to vote for various local offices.
Much has been written about the Supreme Court race between Michael Gableman and Louis Butler, and the “nasty” tone that the race has taken. (Fortunately, Butler never figured out that Gableman’s middle name is “Hussein.”)* TV ad after TV ad, including a great deal of independent ads not sponsored by the candidates, hammer away at their respective opponents, accusing them of everything from being “soft on rapists and murderers” to “not recycling.” As a result of these ads, the two competitors have become ubiquitous in the last month.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the “Frankenstein Veto” constitutional amendment up for a vote, which would restrict the govenor’s ability to “stitch” together words from separate sentences of an appropriations bill to cobble together new laws never intended by the Legislature. Unless you’re a regular reader of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper in Madison (who have made it their personal mission to get the change passed), you likely have little idea what this whole amendment does. Voters will likely go to the polls, read the question, and decide on the spot whether they approve of this broad veto power.
And why are people so less informed about this important constitutional change? Well, because there hasn’t been any television, radio, or print advertising. Frankenstein himself hasn’t been running any ads in favor of the veto power, and neither have groups opposing it. As a result, this crucial change to state government is flying under the radar. It’s hard to predict what the final outcome will be, since it’s hard to gauge how much people know about it.
On the other hand, voters are much more informed (or, misinformed, in some cases) about the Supreme Court race. Why? Because all these “scurrilous” ads actually have the effect of informing voters and heightening the profile of the race. In that respect, despite the unpleasantness of the ads themselves, it appears they do actually make voters more aware of the candidates.
As evidence, see the outstanding work of UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein, who was featured in Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal:
Mudslinging is taken for granted in most political campaigns these days, and it ‘s a tactic that we love to hate.
But negative campaigns ads may be getting a bad rap, says UW-Madison political science professor Ken Goldstein.
Goldstein ‘s research suggests that, counter to what many may think, negative ads can enrich the political process by focusing vital attention on issues and the differences between candidates.
“Talking about people ‘s records and people ‘s weaknesses I think is perfectly fair game when we talk about the important things that are at stake in elections. It ‘s actually the very definition of a representative democracy, ” said Goldstein, co-author of the new book, “Campaign Advertising and American Democracy. ”
“You don ‘t always find positive effects from negative advertising, ” he added. “But you ‘re not likely at all to find negative effects. ”
Negative ads are more likely to be about policy issues, he said. They ‘re also more likely to be factually correct, perhaps because they can expect to face greater public and media scrutiny.
“People certainly like to complain about them, but the evidence also shows they learn from them, ” Goldstein said. “Everyone thinks negative ads are these mudslinging personal things. They are sometimes, but most of the time negative ads are about policy issues and so they ‘re verifiable claims. “
Contrast this to all the hand-wringing by good government types, whose tender sensibilities are so offended by negative advertising that they propose shutting them down altogether. Recently, the state’s Government Accountability Board voted to regulate third party campaign advertising, which is constitutionally questionable, given these groups’ free speech rights. The State Bar has attempted to set up a board to condemn what they believe to be misleading ads. Several bills in the Legislature seek to limit third party campaign spending, while funding campaigns with public money.
Yet, as Goldstein suggests, without both positive and negative advertising on behalf of candidates, nobody would know anything about what’s at stake in the campaigns being run. Supreme Court races would be determined by a smaller slice of voters, as ill-informed voters are less likely to show up to vote. If editorial boards and campaign reformers had their way, statewide races would look a lot more like the Frankenstein veto effort – barely informed voters not knowing what they’re voting on, or not showing up to the polls at all. Sadly, their “ideal” campaign is the biggest threat to true democracy that we face.
*This is not true.