If you watch the campaign ads for governor in Wisconsin, you see both sides talking past each other much of the time.
Democrats have been talking about roads and health care.
Republicans have been talking about taxes and public safety.
There is only one issue that both sides are hammering away at in their broadcast TV ads: education.
The television advertising in the governor’s race illustrates what a central role education is playing in this contest, which has drawn $14 million in ads in fewer than two months.
Education has been mentioned in two-thirds of the broadcast television ads by Democrat Tony Evers and his allies, according to data provided to the Journal Sentinel by the ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.
It has been mentioned in more than 70 percent of the ads aired by Gov. Scott Walker and his allies.
It is not only the most-talked-about issue in the ad wars; it is the only issue that figures prominently in the advertising messages of both sides. It is playing a bigger role in the broadcast TV ads in Wisconsin than it is in contests for governor nationally, the ad data shows.
Behind that pattern is a convergence of factors.
“Given the history of Act 10, all the budgets cut to K-12 early in the Walker tenure and with a somewhat more positive budget now for education and the governor claiming to be the ‘education governor,’ you knew the Democratic challenger was going to talk about (education) no matter what,” said UW-Madison political scientist David Canon. “Then, when the Democratic challenger is Tony Evers, the state school superintendent, it’s ready-made to have education be the focus of the campaign.”
Who is the real ‘education governor’?
Walker’s best-known policy achievement, the Act 10 changes in collective bargaining for public unions, has spawned unending debate over the consequences for education.
Walker and Republican lawmakers also cut about $782 million from state funding to schools in Walker’s first budget, which was offset by teachers paying more for health care and pension costs. Walker’s budgets have also kept districts’ ability to raise property taxes to pay for teachers and programs largely flat since taking power in 2011.
Knowing he would be under attack on the issue, Walker proclaimed himself “the education governor” and has aired ads touting a $649 million increase in funding for public schools that the governor proposed just before launching his re-election campaign for a third term.
The ads say Walker is investing money in the right places in schools and that Act 10 opened the door for him to do that. The GOP campaign spots argue Evers is more loyal to teachers unions than to classrooms and have criticized him over not revoking licenses of teachers who have engaged in misconduct.
Evers and Democrats contend Walker is trying to rewrite history with his ads and leaving out that he sought to cut public school funding while also boosting money for private school vouchers. Evers’ advertising highlights his work as a teacher, principal and school administrator and asserts that his past experience means he would have an administration focused on schools and families.
There is no doubt education is a major issue for Wisconsin voters.
Offered a long list of topics in a statewide poll in August by the Marquette University Law School, 22 percent of voters chose K-12 education as the most important issue facing Wisconsin, topped only by the 24 percent that chose jobs and the economy. Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to choose education, but even among GOP voters, it was easily one of the top issues.
School spending has become a bigger priority for voters in recent years. In a poll released Wednesday by Marquette, 57 percent said increasing spending on public schools was more important than cutting property taxes—up from 46 percent in 2013.
The voters who prioritize school spending included 67 percent of moderates, 53 percent of independents and 62 percent of women.
School spending was chosen ahead of cutting property taxes by voters in every area of the state, including the southeast Wisconsin suburbs and counties outside the city of Milwaukee—a GOP-leaning region where Walker is leading Evers by roughly 20 points.
Tracking ads on both sides
How prominent has education been in the campaign ads?
The answer comes from data provided to the Journal Sentinel by the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), which tracks political advertising. Given the sheer amount of money spent—about $14 million in this race from mid-August to early October on broadcast television—the content of the ads is a window into what issues each side cares about most and thinks will move the voting public. The numbers below reflect ads aired on broadcast TV between Aug. 15 (the day after the primary) and Oct. 4.
On the Democratic side, 81 percent of the spots aired by Evers or pro-Evers groups have mentioned health care, 67 percent education, 48 percent transportation and 11 percent jobs or unemployment.
The health care ads have included attacks on Walker, saying he is contributing to rising health care costs by not accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid and is working to undo protections for people with pre-existing conditions by authorizing a lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Walker has pushed back by pledging to protect people with pre-existing conditions through legislation, though a previous effort didn’t get approval from the Legislature. Walker has renewed a call to pass legislation and also has proposed and signed a plan to stabilize the state’s Obamacare market in an effort to lower premiums.
The Democratic transportation ads feature criticism of Walker over the condition of the state’s roads.
On the GOP side, 74 percent of the ads mentioned education, 39 percent taxes, 34 percent public safety, 21 percent the budget or spending and 17 percent jobs or unemployment.
The ads on taxes have accused Evers of wanting to raise taxes, including the tax on gasoline by as much as $1—an idea Evers has called ridiculous but did not rule out when first questioned. The public safety ads have attacked Evers for supporting a 50 percent reduction in the prison population, which Walker said would put violent felons on the streets. Evers has said the prison reduction is a goal worth pursuing.
The share of GOP ads that mention education—74 percent—includes the many ads Republicans aired after the primary about the case of a Middleton teacher whose license was not revoked by Evers’ Department of Public Instruction after he looked at pornographic material at school. Evers maintains he legally couldn’t revoke the license because children were not exposed to the material, while Walker has argued he should have tried anyway and let the courts sort it out.
If you take away the ads about the case of that one teacher and only include broader messages about education in the tally, the issue of education is still easily the most central one in the television advertising, mentioned in more than 50 percent of all the ads aired by both sides in the governor’s race and in more than 40 percent of the GOP ads, according to CMAG.
Wisconsin is an outlier
Nationally, education has been a prominent issue in campaigns for governor—mentioned in about a third of the broadcast ads—but not as prominent as it has been in Wisconsin.
Unlike education, the other issues in the race are mostly subjects animating one side but not the other.
Health care comes up in 81 percent of Democratic ads but only 6 percent of GOP ads.
Transportation (roads) comes up in 48 percent of Democratic ads but only 6 percent of GOP ads.
“Transportation and roads are a little bit of a wild card,” said Canon. “I can’t think of an election recently where roads would have been a top three issue (for one party).”
In fact, those three issues—education, health and transportation—describe almost the entire policy message on the Democratic side on broadcast television in this race.
The GOP ads are a bit more mixed in their issue focus.
Taxes comes up in 39 percent of Republican ads but none of the Democratic ads.
Public safety comes up in 34 percent of the GOP ads but just 8 percent of the Democratic ads.
Spending and the budget comes up in 20 percent of the GOP ads but not at all in the Democratic ads.
Jobs or unemployment is mentioned in 17 percent of the Republican ads and 11 percent of the Democratic ads.