A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The 2010 FactCheck Awards

We present a look at funny, scary and just plain bizarre campaign ads.


Summary

As usual in this election, we’ve focused on what was true or false in the flood of campaign advertising. And as usual, we found plenty of twisted claims and distortions of reality, and occasionally some pure fabrication. We kept our opinions to ourselves, and laid out the evidence in as sober and evenhanded a fashion as we could manage.

Well, enough of that.

Election Day has arrived; every voter has made up his or her mind (or should have, by now). So — just as we’ve done on Election Days past — we offer here some of the ads that we thought deserved special attention, not for the facts they present but for sheer style points (or lack thereof).

Just for fun, we present our 2010 FactCheck.org Awards. Read on.

Analysis

Reverse Rich Little Award for Terrible Celebrity Impression
To: Daniel Freilich, running for Senate in Vermont

Freilich’s idea to ride the Old Spice Guy’s towel-tails to stardom wasn’t fundamentally a bad one. Who wouldn’t vote for the Old Spice Guy for Senate? He’s sensitive, charismatic, and he has two tickets to that thing you love. But before doing an ad that hinged on a celebrity impression, Freilich might have been wise to check whether he was capable of mimicry. Hint: He’s not. The resulting ad sounds more like Grover in the Sesame Street version, and Grover sounds more like the Old Spice Guy than Freilich does. Watch the whole thing if you can – we were cringing in embarrassment  within the first seven seconds. Vermonters must have felt similarly; Freilich didn’t succeed in his bid for the Democratic nomination, but he is still running for Senate as an Independent.

Incidentally, Freilich also does a really unconvincing Christine O’Donnell.

Diane Benson Award for Most Distasteful Ongoing Theme
To: Joe Sestak, running for Senate in Pennsylvania

When we awarded congressional candidate Diane Benson “Ickiest in Show” last election for her relentless use of symbolic dog feces, we were pretty sure she was going to be a fringe outlier. Granted, we’ve seen weirder fads (those boot-sandal things everyone was wearing this summer spring to mind), but surely dog excrement was never going to become some kind of go-to political metaphor.

Well, do we ever have egg on our faces! (At least we hope that’s egg.) Poop was back in force this year, as Pennsylvania Democratic candidate for Senate Joe Sestak drew an extended and not-at-all subtle analogy between the mess on Wall Street and the mess in his yard. We’re not sure where this strategy goes next. A winking reference to government waste? A shot of an incumbent dragging his rear along the carpet? We hope politicians curb their enthusiasm for this before it goes any further.

 

The Golden Blister Award for Sarcasm
To: Harry Reid, running for Senate in Nevada

This Powerthirst-style Web ad for “Sharron Angle’s Crazy Juice,” made by the Reid campaign, is dripping with neon sarcasm. “Sick of the feds throwing away your tax dollars on greedy veterans and their fancy-pants health care?” Rita Rudner’s voiceover asks. Sure … wait, wha? The sports drink parody is based on Angle’s claims to “have juice” in Washington. The product is touted as being “made with non-fluoridated water, so you know it’s safe from socialism!” Okay, so Angle proposed an amendment to a 1999 state assembly bill that would have blocked fluoridation in the county she represented, but it was because she said she worried about the fluoride being contaminated with heavy metals, not with political ideologies.

We won’t offer an opinion on the ad’s claim that Angle is “too extreme for any rational person on the planet,” which current public opinion polls in Nevada indicate is hyperbole. We can, however, confirm that Angle has claimed to have “juice with [Jim] DeMint,” the junior U.S. senator from South Carolina.

Most Macabre Campaign Imagery Award
To: County coroners everywhere

We suppose it’s a no-brainer (ha) that folks running for county coroner would lean hard on the death/gruesomeness/zombie/Dr. Frankenstein approach so rarely seen in other campaigns. But the campaign of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, coroner hopeful Dwight McKenna is definitely the first time we’ve seen a political ad hinge on charges of body-snatching. As extreme as this ad seems, it’s not a total fabrication. In 1996, incumbent coroner Frank Minyard was sued by Barbara Everett, whose son’s hip bone and corneas were sold to Southern Transplant Services by Minyard’s office. (Minyard himself did not receive payment.) Louisiana law allows this if the dead person can’t be identified or if his or her family can’t be reached, but Everett said there had been no attempt to contact her. Minyard argued that this was Southern Transplant’s job, and his office was eventually dropped from the suit. We’re hardly talking about Frankenstein-style shenanigans, and McKenna’s ad is way over the top. It didn’t do the job, either. Minyard defeated McKenna in a February election, holding on to the post he’s had since the ’70s.

More tasteful, but still grim, are the body-bag inspired yard signs being put out by the campaign of Ryan Goodspeed in Blackford County, Indiana. They employ a gross-yet-elegant bodybag motif that is at least a step above the usual yard signs. In a particularly enterprising move, the Goodspeed campaign is selling T-shirts, too.

Monty Python Award for Illogical Witchfinding
To: Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate in Delaware

Hoping to stem the flood of mockery resulting from footage of her claiming to have dabbled in witchcraft, GOP candidate O’Donnell went public with what may become the most enduring campaign slogan since “read my lips”: “I’m not a witch … I’m you.” As if mere denials ever got someone off the hook for witchery! Perhaps we need to break out the scales and the duck.

O’Donnell’s ad steps into a logical minefield even more absurd than the classic Monty Python “if she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood” argument (which, incidentally, we analyzed here). The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey found that 134,000 people in the United States identified as Wiccans — that was a fifteenfold increase over the 1990 survey, and by now may be much larger if the trend has continued. Even using 2001 numbers, if we assume a relatively consistent spread of Wiccans over the United States, there would be 400 people in Delaware who consider themselves witches. If Christine O’Donnell is them, then she is a witch, but she’s not a witch, she’s them, but they’re witches, so she is a witch, and so on until your head explodes.

HOLY MOLEY! DEMON SHEEP! Award
To: Carly Fiorina, running for Senate in California and apparently Hades

Fiorina’s nearly three-and-a-half minute Web ad calling her opponent in the GOP primary a “fiscal conservative in name only” goes from boring to bizarre in record time. Actually, if we’re being honest, even the boring part is sort of weird. The idea — we suppose — is that Tom Campbell is even worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing — more like a battery-powered demon lurking under a fleece. Or something.

The ad blames Campbell, the former state director of finance, for being “the architect of our disastrous 2005 budget,” which “set the stage for the recent decline of California.” Fiorina’s ad cites the California Legislative Analyst Office as saying that “multibillion dollar operating deficits … will persist” because of what the ad calls the “Tom Campbell budget.” In fact, the LAO also said that the 2005-06 budget included features that would improve the long-term outlook, and that it would reduce the previously projected operating shortfall by $6 billion. But never mind the fact-checking whatever — just jump right to the insane part at 2:26.

Historical Revisionism Award
To: Rick Barber, running for Congress in Alabama

Tea party candidate Rick Barber enlisted some famous faces for his ad advocating armed revolt against the Internal Revenue Service: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Samuel Adams (the Founding Father, not the beer, though after watching the ad you’d be forgiven for thinking it might have been both). Barber’s ad betrays some confusion — he claims that U.S. taxes are levied “without representation” even though he was running for the House of Representatives. He sneers at “what they call a progressive income tax” as though it meant “liberal” income tax.

More important, he gets his history backward. The ad concludes with the actor playing George Washington snarling: “Gather. Your. Armies,” as if to take up Barber’s call for a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party on a military scale. In reality, George Washington levied the first federal tax in the United States, an excise tax on whiskey in 1791. Representation didn’t make this tax go down any easier, and many people resisted payment and attacked tax collectors, culminating in insurrection – at which point Washington mobilized and led a militia to enforce compliance. The IRS looks tame by comparison. Barber lost the history-teacher vote, and the GOP primary.

Political Marksmanship Award
To: Pamela Gorman, running for Congress in Arizona

This much-viewed Web ad, which GOP candidate Gorman says was put together by volunteers, takes a shot at liberal issues like gun control. In fact, by our count, it takes 40 or 50 of them. Gorman appears in the video shooting at least four different firearms, including what could be an old-fashioned Thompson submachine gun from the Al Capone era and a revolver big enough to make Dirty Harry envious. Although the announcer declares that Gorman is “a pretty fair shot,” she’s never shown actually hitting anything. The ad also shoots off a bunch of puns.

Gorman got a lot of attention for the ad, much of it outraged (about the guns, not the puns, for whatever reason). But she lost the primary to Ben Quayle, son of the former vice president. Perhaps she can take out her frustration on the firing range.

Chauncey Gardiner Award for Best Interloper
To: Alvin Greene, sort of running for Senate in South Carolina

We don’t fact-check newspapers or newspaper-run blogs, but we were under the impression that somebody did. Apparently not always. This awesome parody ad for Alvin Greene, whose quirky outsiderism and quixotic bid to defeat Sen. Jim DeMint made him something of a public hero/laughingstock, is actually the creation of two fans who are totally unaffiliated with the Greene campaign (such as it is). But that didn’t stop the New York Times‘ Caucus blog from reporting on it as a genuine political ad — a claim then picked up and repeated by the Atlantic Wire, Gawker and approximately a zillion other news organizations and blogs.

Jay Friedman, the hip-hop producer who wrote the rap and also records as Satellite High, is reportedly highly amused by the whole situation. “People are willing to believe very strange things when they come from the internet,” he told CNN’s Political Ticker blog. Man, we hear that.

The Guns and Butter Award for Strained Argument
To: The National Rifle Association

So, Democrats are going to take away our guns — and our jobs?  That’s what the National Rifle Association suggests in this TV spot supporting Mick Mulvaney, Republican candidate for the House from South Carolina. It shows a worker in a handgun factory worrying about what will happen to his job with “Nancy Pelosi and her crowd in Washington.” He says, “If they damage our Second Amendment rights, it could destroy our jobs here.”

Not much danger of that, actually. The truth is that gun sales are booming since President Obama took office (if the number of FBI background checks is any indication) and Congress has done nothing to reimpose the assault weapons ban that President Obama promised to bring back. (The Brady Campaign gave him an “F” for his first year in office.) But here’s what really caught our attention: The NRA tries to pass this same gun worker off as being worried about his job “here” in both South Carolina and also in Texas, where a nearly identical NRA ad appeared supporting GOP Gov. Rick Perry for reelection.

Hatchet-Faced Nutmeg Dealer Award for Dirtiest Campaigning
To: the 18th century

Think this year is the worst year ever for political mudslinging? So does most of the media. Saying that the candidates behaved worse this election than ever before has become a meaningless salvo on the level of “the most talented designers in Project Runway history!” But the folks at Reason Magazine have put together evidence that mudslinging has a long, long, long history. In fact, when it comes to low-down campaigning, we seem to have lost our way a bit. The actual Founding Fathers would scoff at a Rick Barber ad — so toothless! So mild! It doesn’t even say anything about syphilis!

We have to salute Reason for compiling a list of supporting documents for its video. Some of them are, uh, not exactly primary sources (Free Republic? Really?), but we appreciate the instinct. Plus, now that the magazine has shown us how low the bar should rightfully be set to live up to our national traditions, we can look forward to an even more appalling crop of ads in the next election.

— by Jess Henig