U. Wisconsin Researchers Hope To Promote Campaign Reform With Ad Study

This story was written by Ken Harris, Badger Herald
University of Wisconsin began tracking and analyzing political advertisements in early January to collect data that will be used in a one-of-a-kind national political research project.

UW political science professor Ken Goldstein is again heading the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which has tracked and coded political advertising data since 2000.

As in the past, the project is partnered with Taylor Nelson Sofres Media Intelligence, a provider of marketing information. TNS will provide the project with storyboards and transcriptions of the 2008 federal and gubernatorial television advertisements that run in America's 100 largest markets.

According to Goldstein, the role of the Wisconsin Advertising Project is to code and analyze all political ads. The ads will be analyzed, in real time, for their content, target audience, tone, time and the television program during which they are broadcast.

The information and findings of the project will be made public in a series of press releases throughout the year leading up to the elections.

The project will be operating with the aid of a $298,945 grant from the Joyce Foundation. Joyce Foundation Vice President Lawrence Hansen said he believes the project will be important for dealing with campaign finance reform.

"We hope it will generate the kind of information policy makers will need down the road," Hansen said.

Mary O'Connell, the Joyce Foundation's director of communication, said the project provides essential information for analyzing the relationship between local news coverage of state government candidates and the amount of advertisements about them. According to O'Connell, the project is a great way to tell "whether citizens are getting good solid information about state governments."

Hansen said the Joyce Foundation is particularly interested in the project because many political advertisements will be aired in Midwest states.

According to Goldstein and Hansen, the information provided by the project this year will be especially important. There is expected to be a record number of political advertisements because of recent, highly controversial court rulings surrounding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law of 2002.

"There is going to be an incredible amount of interest group advertising and a lot of litigation and, if the past is any indication, our data will be very important," Goldstein said.

The McCain-Feingold law strictly limited corporations and unions from running advertisements supporting specific federal candidates within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary.

However, Wisconsin Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, won a 2006 Supreme Court case that ruled the law violated their freedom of speech and now allows special interest groups to run ads dealing with political issues.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the ruling allows special interest groups to run "phony issue ads" that endorse specific candidates. McCabe also said these issue ads are actually "electioneering being engaged in outside of campaign spending limits."

According to McCabe, this loophole commercializes the First Amendment by allowing only those who can afford 30-second television spots to have their opinions heard.

"It allows the rich to do almost all the talking," McCabe said. "It changes the First Amendment from a right to a paid privilege."

McCabe added this is an affront to true democracy. He said while the Wisconsin Advertising Project is a useful tool, it is not the answer to the problem.

"It is a positive step toward truth in campaigning because it can help people learn more, but it still doesn't change the law," McCabe said.

Goldstein endorsed nether side of the argument when interviewed by The Badger Herald. "I try and just provide the data," he said.
© 2008 Badger Herald via U-WIRE