A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Down-to-the-Wire Deceptions


Attack ads, and the misinformation that comes with them, continue to swamp the airwaves. In fact, spending on ads in these midterm elections could top $3 billion, said Evan Tracey, whose Kantar Media-owned Campaign Media Analysis Group tracks political ads running nationwide. That cracks the $2.7 billion spent in 2008 – when a presidential race as well as the usual congressional ones were eating up airtime.

A brief rundown of some misleading assaults we’ve found in the last few days:

DSCC Hits Murkowski

Among other things, this ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accuses Republican Lisa Murkowski, who’s running as a write-in independent candidate to retain her Senate seat in Alaska, of voting to "privatize Social Security" and "bail out Wall Street banks that gave billions in bonuses to their CEO."

Actually, what Murkowski says is that she wants to wait for the recommendations of President Obama’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which is expected to release a report in early December. "She is expecting that given that Americans are more healthy and are living longer, that an increase in the Social Security retirement age for newer workers will be required," a spokesman for Murkowski’s campaign told the Anchorage Daily News. That said, Murkowski did vote in 2007 in favor of an amendment, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, that would have allowed for some Social Security money to go into private accounts.

But if it were purely Social Security the DSCC cared about, one might expect it to be attacking the official Republican candidate, Joe Miller, rather than Murkowski. He’s the one who, during primary season, said that he favored phasing out Social Security as a government-run program. That’s real privatization. More recently he said he doesn’t favor cutting benefits for those currently receiving them or about to receive them, but that changes need to be made. Democratic candidate Scott McAdams says he’d increase Social Security taxes on the highest-paid workers to help keep the system in the black.

Murkowski did support the $700 billion financial rescue package – the "bailout" – that President Bush and the Democratic Congress put together in October 2008 to prevent the collapse of the financial system. But again, this is an odd tack for the DSCC to take. Most Democrats supported the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, and so did most Republicans; the vote in the Senate was 74-25.

Who Raised State Workers’ Pay in Illinois?

In the Illinois governor’s race, Republican Bill Brady compares Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn unfavorably to disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich. But the ad is wrong when it accuses Quinn of "sticking taxpayers with a $250 million pay raise for government workers" in exchange for $450,000 in campaign contributions from their union. The raises were negotiated under Blagojevich in 2008. In fact, Quinn renegotiated the contract to defer the raises and cut costs.

"Partner," a TV ad that first aired Oct. 26, seeks to cast Quinn — who was lieutenant governor under Blagojevich — as a student of pay-to-play politics. It says that Quinn "learned a lot from Rod Blagojevich," illustrating the point with a photo of Quinn and a book titled, "The Blagojevich Handbook."

The allegation that Quinn gave state workers a pay raise in exchange for campaign contributions refers to a partial renegotiation of a four-year contract reached in 2008 between the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees and the Blagojevich administration. When he became governor, Quinn sought to lay off 2,600 AFSCME workers as part of a $1 billion cost-savings plan — a move blocked by a judge who "ordered both sides to work out their differences through arbitration or other negotiations," the State Journal-Register reported.

The negotiations resulted in a no lay-off clause through June 2011 in exchange for $50 million in cost savings and a deferral of the scheduled pay raises. The Brady campaign explained its logic this way: Once Quinn re-opened contract negotiations, the contract became his.

But Brady wants it both ways. He’s arguing that Quinn should have further revised the contract, while complaining that the new deal would constrain him if he becomes governor. "Let’s let this election play out, the next governor manage the state resources with the flexibility he needs," Brady said at a Sept. 21 campaign appearance in Chicago.

AFSCME did indeed donate $450,000 to Quinn’s campaign, but that’s not unusual for a big financial supporter of Democrats.

Shots at Buck Misfire

In Colorado, a Democratic ad features several persons saying they "just can’t" vote for Republican Senate candidate Ken Buck, because he’s "too out there." But a few of the positions mentioned in the ad aren’t quite what Buck has espoused.  

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad claims Buck “said he’d make common forms of the pill illegal.” Buck never said that. In fact, he has specifically said that "I’m not in favor of banning common forms of birth control." The claim comes from Buck’s support for a “personhood amendment,” which would add a section to the state Constitution saying that “the term ‘person’ shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being.” Once it became known that the amendment, which is on Tuesday’s ballot, would likely ban certain forms of birth control, such as IUDs and some forms of the pill, Buck said that he didn’t support that. Buck later said he wasn’t taking a position on the ballot initiative.

The ad also claims Buck “said he’d tear up the constitution and end our right to vote for our own senators.” That’s a reference to Buck saying in June 2009 that he favored repeal of the 17th Amendment, which stipulates that the public, rather than state legislatures, will elect members of the U.S. Senate. Buck has since said that he does not support that position and changed his mind about it a day after making his initial statement. He told the Huffington Post in August: “It is not a position I still hold and it wasn’t a position I held a day later… It doesn’t make sense to repeal the 17th amendment and I have said it a dozen of times."

More claims in the ad: It says that Buck "wants to put Social Security in the stock market" and “would end Social Security as we know it.” It’s true that Buck wants some form of a privatized system, but he hasn’t offered specifics. At a candidate forum in March, he said: “I don’t know that a federal government should be involved in a retirement plan.” But The Wall Street Journal reported in July: “Mr. Buck said he would consider some privatization of Social Security but wanted to be sure needy seniors retain a safety net.”

Finally, according to the ad, Buck “wants to get rid of federal college loans.” Buck hasn’t specifically said that, though where he stands is difficult to pin down. He told a radio station in May: "We have student loans and other programs that people have built up a dependence on, and over time, I’m not talking about 30 years, but over time we have to wean the American public off of those and bring those back to the states where they legitimately belong.” He has also said, as Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet has highlighted in ads: “I don’t think our founding fathers ever intended for the federal government to have student loans.” Buck has since maintained that he doesn’t want to do away with the federal loan program but objects to a provision in the health care reconciliation bill that ends government subsidies to private lenders for originating student loans; instead the government will make the loans directly, a move that would save $61 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office

Striking at Sestak

The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s latest assault on Democrat Joe Sestak, who is running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, includes claims he "gutted $500 billion" from Medicare and voted for the "failed stimulus."

Our recent "Whoppers" article refutes both of these claims, which we have seen in Republican attack ads over and over this season. The $500 billion "gutting" refers to cuts in the future growth of Medicare over a ten-year period in the new health care law. There will be no cuts in the guaranteed Medicare package of benefits for seniors (in fact, a plumping-up of benefits is specified).

As for the "failed stimulus"? Actually, the $814 billion package helped – just not as much as everyone hoped it would. The Congressional Budget Office said in August that without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, unemployment would be higher by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points, and we’d have between 1.4 million and 3.3 million fewer people employed.

Mis-tweets on Taxes, Social Security

Earlier this year, we did an article on disinformation being spread on Twitter; little has changed since then. In the final days of the campaign, we spotted some "mis-tweets," as we call them, on two major themes of this election cycle: taxes and Social Security.

Rep. Eric Cantor, the GOP whip from Virginia, posted this mis-tweet Saturday: "Did you know there are 62 days until the $3.8 trillion #Obama tax hikes go into effect?" Shortly after, Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia, posted a similar mis-tweet: "62 days until the Democrats’ 2011 tax increases hit American families and small businesses." That’s wrong, as we have said repeatedly — most recently in our "Whoppers" wrap-up of the 2010 campaign.

Yes, the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are scheduled to expire at the end of this year. But the president and the Democratic leadership have said they want to extend the tax cuts for all but those individuals earning more than $200,000 a year and families earning more than $250,000 — and there are even some Democrats who want go beyond that. It’s wrong to flatly state that the "$3.8 trillion Obama tax hikes go into effect" at the end of the year.

Also in recent days, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have been spreading misinformation on Twitter about Social Security. Both gave a link to a report by a liberal group that claims 104 Republicans in Congress want to "privatize" Social Security. Both re-tweeted a Think Progress tweet that said "REPORT: 104 Republicans In Congress Want To Privatize Social Security."

The report fits neatly into a major Democratic campaign theme that the Republicans will push "privatization" once they gain power. But as we have said again and again, it’s wrong to characterize what some Republicans want to do as a full "privatization." In our "Whoppers" article, we wrote: "Some Republican candidates and incumbents do favor allowing younger workers to invest some portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market, but few if any have supported replacing the current system entirely with a fully privatized system, like the one in Chile."

– by Viveca Novak, Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson, with Annie Norbitz and Michael Morse