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When the Wisconsin recall election started edging forward last fall, Gov. Scott Walker (R) didn’t hesitate. He began airing ads on November 15. At that point in time, the success of the recall looked like a 50/50 proposition. For the last six weeks of 2011, Walker put in $2.4 million in paid media. The only other advertiser on the air at this time was the Democratic umbrella group Greater Wisconsin Committee. In this period, they placed only $680,000. Though Walker wasn’t saturating TV sets, he was establishing his narrative at an early point in the recall process—a critical part of his success.

The only time in which Walker was not on the air was a six-week period from mid-January to the beginning of March. In this time, Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth carried the pro-Walker message. Americans for Prosperity put in $1.5 million and Club for Growth placed another $81,000 over two weeks. The only anti-Walker advertiser on air in this period was the League of Conservation Voters-Sierra Club, which placed a small $30,000 buy on cable. None of the Democratic big guns were up in this period, which was a missed opportunity to define the terms of the recall.

Walker was able to raise so much money that Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, two of the biggest national conservative groups, felt confident the governor and his state allies would be able to handle the race without their funds. But Walker still had plenty of help. Right Direction for Wisconsin, a group associated with the Republican Governors Association, was the first outside group to come in for Walker, dropping $6.5 million. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, a business trade organization, spent $4.7 million, all over just the last five weeks. Over the last two months, Walker, Right Direction and WMC spent a combined $16.9 million.

Meanwhile, the Democratic primary process was damaging. The favorite of the unions was Kathleen Falk. Most of the money spent in the primary process was in favor of Falk, the former Dane County executive. The combined spending for Falk and the union group in her favor, Wisconsin for Falk, spent $4 million. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett only had his own resources to draw upon, contributing around $1 million in the primary. In spite of this, Barrett was able to prevail. Those $4 million dollars ultimately weren’t contributed to defeat Walker, a major waste of resources. 

Prior to the recall round, union officials threw around very big figures -- in the tens of millions -- that they would pay to defeat Walker. In paid media at least, this didn’t happen. Greater Wisconsin Committee was up in late 2011, but wouldn’t go back up on the air until late April. This was a very late start to get back on the air, particularly as it was acting as an umbrella group for different Democratic spending sources. In a phase with no Democratic candidate, they’d have been the main opposition to Walker. Going up this late may have been a fatal mistake.

When the campaign finally became a head-to-head race, Walker’s message was dominant. In the period Barrett was the formal nominee, the spending for pro-Walker forces was $13.4 million. In contrast, the spending from the pro-Barrett advertisers was merely $6.9 million. Having a 2-to-1 spending advantage helped to sustain the five-to-seven point polling lead that Walker maintained for the last two months.

It’s a bit humbling to political advertisers that total paid media spending of around $38 million dollars over the length of eight months would only move a few percent of the electorate in one direction. After all the spending, Walker most likely won because just enough Wisconsinites viewed his collective bargaining reforms as working. A large spending disparity between Walker’s side and his liberal opponents helped to set the narrative of success Walker needed to win. But spending alone isn’t what determined Walker’s fate. 


Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.