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Political attack ads: Are they rallying Wisconsin voters or deterring them?

Political attack ads are on the rise in Wisconsin campaigns. Are they having the desired results among Wisconsin voters?
Aaron P. Bernstein
Getty Images North America
Political attack ads are on the rise in Wisconsin campaigns. Are they having the desired results among Wisconsin voters?

With less than two weeks to go before the midterm elections, there is no escaping political attack ads in Wisconsin. Political ads are used to rally voter support and persuade undecided voters why a candidate is or isn't the right person to lead our community.

But many of these ads are negative, and this negativity could impact voter turn-out in the state. Amber Wichowsky, a political science professor at Marquette University, says the political attack strategy could be doing more harm than good in encouraging long-term voter participation.

This year, you may have noticed more political attack ads on TV or streaming services. Due to candidates raising their election funds, independent organizations raising money in support of their endorsed candidate, and political parties raising money and supporting their corresponding candidates, elections today are especially well-funded.

"Most of that spending is going on advertising and most of that advertising is negative. [They're] saying much less about why you should vote for candidate A and much more about why you should definitely not vote for candidate B," says Wichowshy.

In most elections, there are typically two types of voters that a campaign will encounter — voters who are firm in their support of a candidate and are already motivated to vote and still undecided. Campaigns seek to mobilize the already motivated voters to help further their cause while simultaneously trying to appeal to the undecided voters.

While attack ads and the amount of times we encounter them can feel overwhelming, they are still effective in their purpose of getting Wisconsin voters' attention. In the last few election cycles, Wichowsky points out that anger has also mobilized voters to cast their ballot.

"Just from a psychological perspective, emotions matter. And anger is an emotion — it makes us pay attention to information. So, when that negative attack ad comes on, even though we might not like it, we're paying attention to it," says Wichowsky.

Wichowsky suspects the political attack strategy may deter voters who are initially invested from participating in future elections. "If their only experience of politics is seeing this sort of negativity, I do worry that it drives down voter sense of efficacy — sense that their vote actually makes a difference," says Wichowsky.

However, people already invested in political races tend to be voters and are more likely to seek more information after being riled up by an attack ad.

With all of the attack ads circulating around you can find accurate intel for the upcoming midterms with information on the candidates, their positions, voting processes and other pertinent information in our voter guide.

How to vote, who the candidates are and what's at stake.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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