Anti-Clinton Ads Dominated Wisconsin’s Biggest Media Market in Final Week of Election

Andrew Perez | November 18, 2016

Donald Trump and his Republican allies dominated the Wisconsin airwaves in the final week of the 2016 presidential election. Wisconsin is one of four Rust Belt states that Trump flipped en route to a victory that stunned pollsters and political observers.

Trump won the Badger State by one percent of the vote, making him the first Republican presidential candidate to win there in more than three decades. The Clinton campaign has been roundly criticized for not dedicating enough resources to states like Wisconsin and Michigan, states that have been reliably blue for years.

Clinton’s team failed to provide adequate funding for get-out-the-vote operations in both states, and Democrats in Wisconsin tried to raise $1 million at the last minute to pay canvassers, the Huffington Post reported this week. Clinton did not visit Wisconsin during the general election. She was the first Democratic or Republican nominee to skip the state since 1972, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

In late October, the Clinton campaign announced it was placing ads on the Wisconsin airwaves for the first time during the general election. Still, the Trump campaign and outside spending groups backing him accounted for 60 percent of the television advertisements, much of them negative, run in the Milwaukee media market during the final week of the election, according to a MapLight analysis of data from the Political TV Ad Archive. The website tracked ads run on major broadcast channels in 10 battleground states.

Clinton and her allies ran more TV ads than her opponent in nearly every battleground state, according to data from the Center for Public Integrity. Wisconsin appears to have been an exception. Clinton and her allies aired 62 percent of the ads run in the last week of the election in the Philadelphia media market, for example, but only 39 percent of the ads run around Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest media market.  

Trump and Republican outside groups aired 13.5 hours worth of ads in the Milwaukee area in the final week of the election, slightly more than they did around Philadelphia. Clinton and Democratic groups spent roughly half as much time on the air in Wisconsin as they did in Pennsylvania, by comparison. Clinton received about 43,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee County than President Barack Obama did in 2012. She lost Wisconsin by roughly 27,000 votes.

While there were more ads favoring Trump in the Milwaukee market during the final week, Clinton’s campaign actually ran 77 percent more ads there in the same span than Trump’s campaign did. Trump’s advertising advantage came from spending by super PACs and “dark money” organizations: outside groups supporting his campaign were responsible for 71 percent of the ads run on the Republican side.

During the primary campaign, Trump publicly rejected support from those kinds of groups, which are allowed to accept unlimited sums of cash but are required to act independently of candidates under federal elections rules.

Trump’s team warmed up to outside help after he won the party’s nomination, and his campaign’s close ties to two super PACs are the subject of a recent complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Rebuilding America Now, one of the super PACs included in the complaint, ran 215 ads on major Wisconsin broadcast channels during the final week of the election. As MapLight first reported, that group’s political director joined the super PAC only days after announcing his departure from the Trump campaign, despite federal election rules that require some campaign staffers to go through a 120-day “cooling-off period” before joining a supportive outside group.

45Committee, a nonprofit linked to the Ricketts family, paid for 246 ad airings in Wisconsin slamming Clinton during the final week. Joe Ricketts, a Republican mega-donor, founded TD Ameritrade. He and his family initially opposed Trump, but 45Committee spent millions on ads attacking Clinton across the country during the final weeks of the race. The “dark money” group is a tax-exempt social welfare organization and is not required to publicly disclose its donors, under IRS rules.

Trump also benefited from support from Americans for Prosperity, a “dark money” organization backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity paid for 416 airings of an ad that targeted Clinton and Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold, knocking them for supporting Obama’s health care law. (Feingold lost his bid to reclaim the Senate seat he last held in 2011.)


Maplight Analysis of Political TV Ad Archive data through Nov. 17, 2016. The markets in the Political TV Ad Archive include stations in Massachusetts (Boston)/New Hampshire (Manchester), Iowa (Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City-Dublin), Ohio (Cleveland), Colorado (Denver), Nevada (Las Vegas), Wisconsin (Milwaukee), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Arizona (Phoenix-Prescott), North Carolina (Raleigh-Durham-Fayetteville), California (San-Francisco-Oakland-San Jose), Florida (Tampa-St. Petersburg), and Maryland (Hagerstown)/Washington DC. More information about the data from the Political TV Ad Archive is available here.