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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Monday Night Quibbles

No statements made of whole cloth, but some factual embroidery by Clinton and Obama.


In separate, 30-minute question-and-answer sessions sponsored by The Politico and a Washington, D.C., television station, Obama and Clinton for the most part stuck to the facts – or, often, to statements that were matters of judgment and thus out of our bailiwick.

But, our mission being to point out the diminutive distortions as well as the big, fat slabs of baloney, we bring you flubs we found in last night’s non-debate:

  • Obama boasted of his Latino support in Illinois and Iowa – not mentioning that he won a much smaller share of the Illinois Latino vote in this year’s presidential primary than in his 2004 Senate primary, or that there are exceedingly few Latinos in Iowa.
  • Clinton said "somebody" told her Obama had never had a negative ad run against him. Actually, her campaign ran one.
  • Obama overstated the number of Iraqis displaced inside the country’s borders.
  • Obama tried to cast doubt on his ranking as the "most liberal" senator in 2007 by the nonpartisan National Journal. But he cherry-picked the vote he cited – one of 99 analyzed by the magazine – to make the ratings appear illogical to the casual listener. The other votes were more intuitive flashpoints between liberals and conservatives.


In back-to-back interviews Feb. 11, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the two Democratic presidential front-runners, fielded questions posed by The Politico‘s editor in chief, John Harris, and Leon Harris of Washington, D.C.’s ABC7. The sessions took place on the eve of the "Chesapeake primary," when voters in Maryland, Virginia and D.C. go to the polls.

Latinos for Obama?

Obama engaged in a bit of puffery when he boasted of the Latino support he had received in Illinois and Iowa.

Obama: And my vote among Latinos in my home state of Illinois, when I ran for example, was 75 percent, despite having a very strong Hispanic candidate in the race. We actually won the Latino vote in Iowa, where I had a chance to work consistently with the Latino community.

First, the Latino population in Iowa is so small (3.8 percent) that the official exit polling company didn’t even break out results for it, but rather lumped that population into the nebulous "other" column. Obama did win 49 percent of that category, more than any of his fellow candidates. But that’s a thin reed to cling to, and a close look at the state’s returns reveals data that are inconclusive. For instance, there are seven counties in Iowa with Hispanic populations of 10 percent or more. Obama won three and tied for first in another; he came in second in two counties and third place in one.

Obama did garner 70 percent of the Latino vote in his Senate Democratic primary race in 2004, as he stated. There’s more recent data about such support for the candidate, though, and perhaps he didn’t bring it up for a reason. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama’s Latino support in Illinois "slipped significantly in Super Tuesday’s primary." Indeed it did. He took 50 percent of the Latino vote, barely beating Clinton’s 49 percent.

‘Somebody’ Told Clinton Wrong 

Clinton made a startling statement about advertising run against her rival:

Clinton: Somebody told me today that Senator Obama has never had a negative ad run against him. Well, get ready, because if he’s the nominee we will see a lot of that.

We already have. And it came from the Clinton camp itself.

Her campaign has run a radio ad and at least two direct mail pieces that we’d certainly characterize as negative. We found that the radio ad made misleading and false implications about Obama, and we said that one of the mailers "twists Obama’s words and gives a false picture of his proposals." The ads criticized Obama for comments he made about the Republican Party, falsely described how a proposal Obama favored would affect Social Security taxes and gave a distorted view of an energy bill he supported.

Displaced Iraqis

Obama stretched the facts when he said there are "two-and-a-half million displaced people inside of Iraq and several million more outside of Iraq." The International Red Cross put the figure of those displaced inside the country at 2.3 million as of September 2007 but has since lowered its estimate to 2.2 million, as the security situation has improved and some people have returned home.

As for displaced Iraqis outside the nation’s borders, according to a recent report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that figure is around 2 million.

Liberal in More Ways Than One

Obama was asked about a recent ranking of senators by the National Journal that rated him the most liberal in 2007, and whether voters could rely on him to reach across the aisle and get things done. His response:

Obama: Well, first of all, not to grouse against the National Journal, but let me give you an example of why I was rated the most liberal was because I wanted an office of public integrity that stood outside of the Senate, and outside of Congress, to make sure that you’ve got an impartial eye on ethics problems inside of Congress. Now, I didn’t know that it was a liberal or Democratic issue. … So that’s the problem with some of these ratings – how they score things. It uses categories that I think don’t make sense to a lot of Americans.

Obama’s answer could mislead voters. Although we agree that rankings and labels sometimes don’t have much substance behind them, Obama cited just one of 99 Senate votes selected by National Journal‘s reporters and editors for the study. The nonpartisan public policy magazine’s analysis of the votes and the designation of "liberal" and "conservative" positions was done according to a rather rigorous process the publication has been using since 1981. Most of the votes chosen had to do with the minimum wage, Medicare prescription drug premiums, renewable energy, health insurance for children, immigration, embryonic stem cell research, the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as attorney general and other issues on which it’s not too surprising to see a divide between liberals and conservatives.

Clinton ranked 16th most liberal in the Senate, although she actually differed from Obama on just two of the 99 selected votes – the creation of an outside ethics office, and allowing certain immigrants to stay in the country while their visas were being renewed. A comparison of Obama and Clinton over the last three years (the time that Obama has been in the Senate) shows that Obama had an average composite "liberal" score of 88, which is higher than Clinton’s average of 77.6.

– by Viveca Novak, with Justin Bank, Lori Robertson and D’Angelo Gore

Update, Feb. 18: We have modified the final bullet point in the Summary section to more accurately reflect the text of the "Liberal in More Ways Than One" section of the article. The wording of the section itself remains the same.


"2008 Primary Results, Exit Poll Illinois-Democrats." MSNBC, as conducted by Edison Media Research, accessed 12 Feb. 2008.

"2008 Primary Results, Exit Poll Iowa-Democrats." MSNBC, as conducted by Edison Media Research, accessed 12 Feb. 2008.

De Los Angeles Torres, Maria. "Immigration Issue Cuts Deep: Latino vote a big loss for Obama." Chicago Tribune, 10 Feb. 2008.

"Iowa Caucus Results, Democrats, Results by County." New York Times, accessed 12 Feb. 2008.

"State and County Quick Facts," U.S. Census Bureau.

"Race and Hispanic or Latino Origin in Iowa’s Counties: 2006," Iowa Data Center, accessed 12 Feb. 2008.

"Haunted guests: Iraqis seek refuge with their neighbors," Iraqi Red Crescent Society Magazine, Dec. 2007.

"More refugees returning to Iraq: Red Crescent." AFP, 4 Jan. 2008.

"Iraq Situation: Supplementary Appeal 2008." Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Nov 2007.