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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Maverick Misleads

A McCain ad comparing Palin to Obama isn't all above board.


McCain's campaign launched a TV ad touting his running mate, Palin, and offering a comparison to Obama. Some of its claims are off the mark:

  • It says Obama "gave big oil billions in subsidies and giveaways," citing his votes for a 2005 energy bill. But the bill slightly raised taxes on the oil industry overall.
  • The ad plucked a positive blurb about Palin from an Associated Press article that, in fact, was very much a mixed review. The AP said she "brings an ethical shadow to the [Republican] ticket," for example.
  • The ad says Obama is the "most liberal" Senator. But the National Journal rated him the 16th most liberal in his first year and the 10th most liberal in his second. It rated his votes "most liberal" only in 2007, when he was busy campaigning and missed one-third of the votes on which the rating is based.


Sen. John McCain's campaign says the ad, titled "Alaska Maverick," will run in "key states," though it will likely get plenty of media coverage as well. It's misleading on a few fronts.

[TET ]

John McCain 2008 TV Ad: "Alaska Maverick"

Announcer: The Journal says: "Governor Palin's credentials as an agent of reform exceed Barack Obama's." They're right.

She "has a record of bi-partisan reform."

He's the Senate's "most liberal."

She "took on the oil producers."

He gave big oil billions in subsidies and giveaways.

She's "earned a reputation as a reformer."

His reputation? Empty words.

John McCain: I'm John McCain and I approved this message. [/TET]

Don't Forget About the Tax Hikes

The most misleading claim in the ad is that Obama "gave big oil billions in subsidies and giveaways," a reference to the 2005 energy bill that we've debunked again and again. Actually, the bill, which President Bush signed into law, slightly raised taxes on the oil industry. Obama voted for the bill; McCain voted against it. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said that the energy act "included several oil and gas tax incentives, providing about $2.6 billion of tax cuts for the oil and gas industry. In addition, [the act] provided for $2.9 billion of tax increases on the oil and gas industry, for a net tax increase on the industry of nearly $300 million over 11 years."

In total, the vast majority of the billions in tax breaks and subsidies included in the bill went to electric utilities and nuclear power, as well as alternative fuels research and energy-efficient cars and buildings.

McCain's ad attempts to contrast Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's record on "big oil" with Obama's. It says she "took on the oil producers." Maybe so. The ad's quote comes from an Anchorage Daily News article that said Palin had pushed through a bill to have an independent company build a gas line that oil companies hadn't moved on quickly enough, according to Palin, and she also backed increased oil taxes. But Obama is making attacks on oil companies a centerpiece of his campaign, while Palin favors drilling in places that even McCain wants to keep off limits, most notably the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Praise in Context

The ad uses a partial quote – she "has a record of bi-partisan reform" – from an Aug. 29 Associated Press report. Those words do appear in the article, but so do several others that aren't as flattering.

In fact, the AP report raises some questions about Palin's credentials, saying: "She is younger and less experienced than the first-term Illinois senator, and brings an ethical shadow to the ticket." It also says, "Palin's lack of experience undercuts GOP charges that Obama is not ready to be commander in chief."

The ad also quotes the Wall Street Journal as saying, "Governor Palin's credentials as an agent of reform exceed Barack Obama's." But those words didn't come from the newspaper's reporters, they came from the WSJ's editorial board, which is notably conservative and generally friendly to Republicans and hostile to Democrats.

Liberal Leanings

The ad also says Obama is "the Senate's 'most liberal,' " a claim that rests on flimsy evidence to say the least. It's based on one analysis of votes cast in 2007. Obama was ranked as the “most liberal senator” by a National Journal evaluation of voting records in 2007 – but that wasn’t the case during his first two years in the Senate, when he ranked 16th and 10th on the most-liberal scorecard. Obama also missed one-third of the 99 votes on which National Journal based its rankings last year, due to his campaign schedule.

We have no argument with the fact that Obama is liberal – he is a Democrat, after all – but we note the ad's claim rests on one evaluation of last year's votes. According to another analysis, this one of bill sponsorship by the independent site GovTrack.us, Obama is a "rank-and-file Democrat." That's a step below the ranking of "far-left."

– by Lori Robertson, with D'Angelo Gore


Congressional Research Service. Oil and Gas Tax Subsidies: Current Status and Analysis. Washington: GPO, 2007.



Kizzia, Tom. “The Joan of Arc of Alaska Politics.” Anchorage Daily News, 29 Aug. 2008.

Editorial. “A Reform Ticket,” Wall Street Journal, 30 Aug. 2008.

Fournier, Ron. “Analysis: Palin’s age, inexperience rival Obama’s.” Associated Press, 29 Aug. 2008.

2007 Vote Ratings.” National Journal, 31 Jan. 2008.

Barack Obama, overview. Govtrack.us, accessed 4 Sept. 2008.