On Election Day, capping off months of record spending on federal and state political campaigns, reporters from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism visited some Madison polling places to ask voters about the role of money in politics.
Their reactions, like the ads themselves, were mostly negative.
"I'm tired of all of the political ads," said transport driver Kimayana Johnson, 34. "I wish all the money they spent on those ads was going to the schools, going to the homeless and going to social services instead of making these irritating political ads."
More than $1 billion was spent on ads in the presidential race, including about $45 million in Wisconsin. And much of the $70-plus million lavished on Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race, led by $45 million from outside groups, also went for commercials.
Yet many voters insisted these ads had no impact on them.
"I knew who I was voting for from the beginning, so none of the ads really affected me," said Deborah Trudeau, 34, a restaurant manager.
Leslie Poole, 19, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student, expressed a similar view: "I don't listen to ads at all. I feel like they don't have any accurate information, and it's better to watch debates and other sources."
Some avowed that, when it came to them, the ads backfired. "The Romney ads just reaffirmed that I was voting correctly by voting for Barack," said disabled veteran Michael Weber, 58.
Such reactions suggest there's something foolhardy, even tragic, about the ad-buying bonanza: All that money, down the drain. It's a view shared even by some seasoned political observers.
"I'd say 95% of all outside group spending is wasted," Mark McKinnon, formerly a media adviser to President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg Businessweek. "It's all negative, most of it cheaply produced, and it just becomes a wall of white noise. Voters aren't stupid."
"I don't think there's any question that a lot of this money is wasted," agrees Mike McCabe, executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan elections watchdog. "The advertising is invading the living rooms of voters and nonvoters alike. Many messages reach people who have already made up their minds."
But McCabe adds that many voters who claim they pay no attention to ads will, when asked what they think of the candidates, "parrot the exact message that the ads have been hammering for weeks." He suspects these airwave-borne toxins are infecting the body politic "more than people realize or are willing to acknowledge." He calls their impact "insidious."
As this column has previously noted, the purpose of political advertising is broader than just convincing undecided voters. It's to manipulate levels of enthusiasm. Will this voter put up a yard sign? Will that one try to sway Aunt Julie's choice?
Some voters admit to being moved in 30-second increments. "I liked the [ads] that had Barack or Michelle speaking directly to us," said UW-Madison student Sara De La Torre, 18. "They talked about Wisconsin, you could see Bascom Hall in the background, and you could tell it was really targeted to us."
And many people agree political spending has a huge impact -- on others. Kelly Dulli, 28, a veterinary technician, lamented the vast infusions of out-of-state money during the attempted recall of Gov. Scott Walker, saying "those people were determining our election."
Ken Goldstein, a UW-Madison political science professor who now heads CMAG | Kantar Media, which tracks political ads, cites their pivotal role in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race. He calls the fact that Democrat Tammy Baldwin "had the airwaves to herself for over a month" after the primary, which depleted Republican Tommy Thompson's cash reserves, "decisive in her impressive victory."
As for the presidential race, Goldstein says, "Advertising matters at the margin, and in many battleground states, the margin mattered."
And that makes the impact of all those commercials anything but marginal.
Bill Lueders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.