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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

DNC vs. McCain

Two Democratic Party TV ads hit McCain on Iraq and the economy. We supply context and corrections.


The Democratic National Committee has produced two TV ads against McCain, hoping to soften him up while the party figures out who its own presidential nominee will be.

  • One ad shows selected portions of McCain’s comments that a 100-year U.S. presence in Iraq would be "fine with me." The ad uses dramatic images of war and violence, and omits any mention that McCain was speaking of a peaceful presence like that in Japan or Korea.
  • An earlier ad attacks McCain for saying the nation’s economy is "prosperous" and "better off overall" than eight years ago. The ad uses a couple of incorrect statistics to argue otherwise. It says the country has lost 1.8 million jobs when, in fact, it has gained nearly 5.4 million, and it says gasoline prices have risen 200 percent, when the actual figure is 139 percent.


The latest DNC ad was released April 27 and is set to start running on cable networks next week. An earlier ad has been running lightly on cable since April 20. Both are aimed at raising doubts about Sen. John McCain as he campaigns for the White House – and while Democrats are still trying to sort out whether Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton will be their standard-bearer. The DNC is using both ads in fundraising appeals, asking the party faithful to donate money to buy broadcast time for them. It calls the Iraq ad "one of the most powerful television spots Americans will see this year." 

Choosing His Words Carefully

The latest ad follows up on a DNC fundraising e-mail, which we critiqued in February, portraying McCain as willing to fight an "endless war" in Iraq.

 [TET ]

DNC Ad: "100"

Offscreen voice: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years.
On screen graphic: Senator McCain. President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years.
McCain: Maybe a hundred. That’d be fine with me.
On screen: 100 years in Iraq.
On screen: 5 years. $500 billion. Over 4,000 dead.
Offscreen voice: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years.
McCain: Maybe 100.
Narrator: If all he offers is more of the same, is John McCain the right choice for America’s future?
On screen: Is John McCain the right choice for America’s future?
Narrator: The Democratic National Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [/TET] 

It opens with a shot of McCain onstage at a town hall meeting in January. An offscreen voice says President Bush has discussed keeping U.S. troops "in Iraq for 50 years." We see McCain saying, "Maybe a hundred." Pause. "That’d be fine with me." Then we hear an explosion and sirens, accompanied by video of cars on fire, plumes of smoke and general chaos in an obviously dangerous setting. The words "Maybe a hundred" appear on the screen, followed by "5 years," "$500 billion" and "Over 4,000 killed."

The clear implication is that if McCain is elected, we can expect to be battling in Iraq for many decades to come. But the admakers cut off the rest of McCain’s response, which provides some badly needed context:

McCain, town hall meeting, Jan. 3: Maybe a hundred. … We’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me, as long as Americans, as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. It’s fine with me and I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world.

The DNC ad doesn’t mention that McCain was speaking specifically about a peacetime presence. And the text of the ad paired with images of Iraq under siege leave a clear impression that McCain proposes to allow a century more of war, with U.S. involvement. That’s not what he said, in New Hampshire or in other settings when he’s been asked about it.

Republicans have called the ad a distortion, but DNC Chairman Howard Dean defended it, saying in an NBC News "Meet the Press" interview on Sunday:

Dean, April 27: First of all, we’re not arguing that he’s going to be at war for a hundred years. We don’t think we ought to be in Iraq for a hundred years under any circumstances. Think of the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being spent in Iraq, which we need right here at home right now to preserve American jobs. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, if Senator McCain believes that you can occupy a country like Iraq for a hundred years without having a long war and violence and our troops being hurt and, and killed, I think Senator McCain is wrong. … [D]oes anyone think, who’s watching this show, that if you keep our troops in Iraq for a hundred years, people won’t be attacking them and won’t be setting off suicide bombs and won’t be having militias go after them? I don’t think so. And most Americans don’t think so.

Dean is correct in one sense. His ad doesn’t say in so many words that McCain is "going to be at war for a hundred years." But by juxtaposing McCain’s words with dramatic, violent images of war, it clearly leaves that impression.

It’s one thing to argue, as Dean does, that McCain’s position is a recipe for continued violence and bloodshed, whatever his stated intent. But it is another thing to misrepresent that intent. The ad twists the sense of McCain’s words by showing images of war, when he was really talking about a peaceful troop presence. Imagine how different the ad would seem if it showed images of, say, American troops walking the streets of Tokyo or Seoul and had included what McCain said about "Americans … not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed."

Anyone who didn’t already know the fuller version of McCain’s answer could easily be fooled into thinking that McCain would be perfectly happy to see the war continue. McCain has said quite clearly that he considers Democratic proposals for a quick withdrawal from Iraq to be "surrender," and so deadly fighting could well continue longer under a President McCain than under either a President Hillary Clinton or a President Obama. But what the DNC ad conveys is the opposite of what McCain said.

[TET ]

DNC Ad: "Better Off?"

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: Senator McCain, are Americans better off than they were eight years ago?
McCain: I think you can argue that Americans, overall, are better off because we have had a pretty good, prosperous time. . .
On screen graphic: Household Income Down $1,000.
McCain: . . . with low unemployment . . .
On screen: Unemployment Up
McCain . . . low inflation . . .
On screen: Highest Inflation in 17 Years
McCain: . . . A lot of good things have happened. A lot of jobs have been created…
On screen: 1.8 million jobs lost
Gas Prices Up 200 Percent
McCain: I think we are better off overall…
Announcer: Do you feel better off? The Democratic National Committee is responsible for this advertising. [/TET] 

Untrue Claims

The DNC’s first national ad was released April 21 and tweaks McCain for his positive assessment of President Bush’s economic record during a January debate on CNN. While McCain talks of "a pretty good, prosperous time" over the past eight years and says, "I think we are better off overall," the ad flashes images of a foreclosure sign, a closed factory, a gasoline pump with a $4.01 price per gallon and a series of gloomy economic statistics.

The announcer poses a perfectly fair question at the end: "Do you feel better off?" Individual voters may answer that question differently based on their own circumstances, regardless of the numbers. Nevertheless, two of the DNC’s factual claims are untrue.

Not Enough Jobs

While McCain says "a lot of jobs have been created," the ad shows a graphic that states, "1.8 million jobs lost." McCain is correct and the ad is wrong. Total nonfarm employment was nearly 5.4 million higher last month than it was when President Bush took office in January 2001, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the standard measure of jobs, and it means 5.4 million have been created.

The DNC defends its claim of "jobs lost" by pointing to the total number of persons who were without jobs in March. That figure is 1.8 million higher than it was when Bush was sworn in. But it doesn’t mean that many jobs were lost, it means that the job gain didn’t keep pace with the number of persons who are seeking work. The ad would have been correct to say that there are "1.8 million more unemployed." That stark statistic doesn’t contradict McCain’s statement that lots of jobs were created, however. It means not enough were created to satisfy the need.

Fuelish Math

The ad claims gasoline prices are "up 200 percent," which isn’t correct. The increase is actually 139 percent.

The price of regular gasoline at the pump has gone from $1.47 per gallon the week Bush was sworn in to $3.51 the week the ad appeared, according to the Energy Information Administration. That’s an increase of $2.04 per gallon, which is 139 percent of the starting price.

The DNC picked the week ending Dec. 3, 2001, as its starting point – long after Bush took office. By that time the price of regular had dipped to $1.11 as Americans curtailed travel in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Using that figure does produce a 200 percent increase, but that’s not the change that has occurred since Bush was sworn in.

The ad’s other statistics check out, mostly:

  • "Household Income Down $1,000." That’s close. Official Census figures show median household income in 2006 was $48,201, which is $962 lower than in 2000, when it stood at $49,163 after adjustment for inflation.
  • "Unemployment Up." The unemployment rate was 4.2 percent when Bush took office, and it was 5.1 percent in March, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But McCain also was right when he said unemployment is "low." The average monthly unemployment rate since 1948 is just under 5.6 percent, putting the current level at half a point below average.
  • "Highest Inflation in 17 years." The Consumer Price Index advanced 4.1 percent during 2007, the fastest rise in prices since the 6.1 percent increase during 1990.

–by Viveca Novak and Brooks Jackson


Russert, Tim. Interview with Howard Dean. "Meet the Press." NBC, 27 April 2008.

McCain, John. "Surrender is NOT an Option." johnmccain.com, accessed 29 April 2008.

U.S. Department Of Labor Statistics. "Consumer Price Index History Table," undated, accessed 29 April 2008.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. "U.S. Regular All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices (Cents per Gallon)," undated, updated 28 April 2008, accessed 29 April 2008.

U.S. Census Bureau, "Historical Income Tables **–** Households, *Table H-6. Regions–All Races by Median and Mean Income: 1975 to 2006." 28 Aug 2009, accessed 29 April 2008.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National), Total Nonfarm Employment, Seasonally Adjusted, Jan. 1948 – March 2008," data extracted 29 April 2008.