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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Whoppers of 2012, Early Edition

A presidential campaign that is nasty, brutish and long


Thomas Hobbes’ oft-cited phrase from 1651, “nasty, brutish and short,” does not describe the 2012 presidential campaign — unfortunately. The contest so far has been nasty all right, and disregard for the truth has been brutish on both sides, in our judgment. But alas, it won’t be over until Nov. 6.

So many false and misleading claims have already surfaced that, once again, we are moving up the clock on our annual wrap-up of the campaign season’s worst political whoppers, as we did four years ago. We’d like to think there would be no need for a “Whoppers, Volume 2,” but for the record, we wrote a sequel in 2008.

We’re also permitting ourselves a rare bit of editorializing about the deplorable tone of this particular campaign. Besides being marked by a cavalier disregard for facts on both sides, the campaign also has become bitter and trivial. It is failing to engage the public in a fact-based discussion of the hard choices that will very soon be forced on Washington.

In its triviality, the 2012 campaign so far resembles the infamous 1988 contest that pitted George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis. The “issues” featured then included Dukakis’ support for a state prison furlough program and Bush’s knowledge (or lack of it) about aid to Nicaraguan rebels. Neither side said much about an unfolding debacle in the U.S. Savings and Loan industry, which eventually cost taxpayers more than $130 billion.

This time the real issues facing the country are much bigger: A lagging recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s, a string of $1-trillion-plus deficits, inexorably rising medical costs that burden both state and federal taxpayers, and a Social Security system unable to pay full benefits for more than another 20 years or so. Just to name a few.

And what are the candidates and their allies talking about?

In Chicago, the Obama campaign for weeks has been consumed with the date (1999 or 2001?) of Romney’s departure from Bain Capital, the venture-capital firm he founded. The reason? The Obama campaign wants to blame Romney for management decisions made after Feb. 11, 1999, at a few of the companies in which Bain invested. Romney did retain ownership and corporate titles listed in routine SEC filings after February 1999, but no evidence has yet shown that he exercised any active control over Bain’s investment decisions during this time. Romney was working 12-hour days, six days a week, as president of the 2002 Winter Olympics committee and was not actively involved in Bain.

Obama has even stooped to make a false claim that Romney favored banning abortion in cases of rape or incest, as though the contrast between their actual positions was not sufficiently clear. In doing so, the president mirrors the distortions of opponents who once accused him of favoring “infanticide.”

For his part, Romney has claimed to have created as many as 100,000 jobs while at Bain, happily taking credit for hiring that happened long after he left (and offering no actual accounting for the figure). He has accused Obama of waging a “war on women” based on job losses from a recession that started more than a year before Obama took office. He has falsely stated in a TV ad that an inspector general found stimulus contracts “were steered to ‘friends and family,’ ” when the IG made no such finding. And he has repeatedly misrepresented Obama’s new health care law.

Meanwhile the tone of the campaign becomes ever more nasty. Obama campaign aides recently suggested Romney was guilty of a “felony,” while a Romney surrogate said the president should “learn to be an American.”

And neither candidate speaks candidly of what he would actually do if elected. Romney won’t say how he plans to cut taxes further without losing revenues. Cutting or eliminating the deduction for home mortgages or for state income taxes? Obama says nothing about how Social Security is to be preserved. Raising the payroll tax?

Perhaps we’ll hear more in the 109 campaigning days to come. Perhaps the candidates will become less personal, more substantive, and more forthcoming about their plans for leading the nation. We remain hopeful. But, based on the facts so far, we’re not optimistic.


On April 10, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney became the party’s presumptive nominee — marking the unofficial beginning of the general election. A day later, Romney attacked President Barack Obama for waging a “war on women” because “over 92 percent of the jobs lost under this president were lost by women.”

Romney appropriated the phrase “war on women” from Democrats, who had been using it against Romney and Republicans who opposed the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. CNN carried a headline over an April 11 story that read, ” ‘War over women’ kicks off Obama-Romney race.”

Things haven’t gotten much better since then.

War Over Women

Romney’s statistic about female employment was accurate, but not the whole story. Male employment fell sharply and much earlier in the economic downturn, but has recovered at a faster rate than female employment. A more telling statistic: The unemployment rate was lower for women (8.1 percent) than men (8.3 percent) in April.

The battle for the women’s vote has resulted in some twisted claims from both sides.

An Obama TV ad alleged Romney “backed a law that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.” But there was no such law. The Obama campaign was referring to a question about a hypothetical “federal ban on all abortions” posed at a 2007 debate by an audience member. In his answer, Romney did not say what, if any, exceptions he supported — giving the Obama campaign the opening to answer for him. But Romney has been specific, both before and after that debate, that he supports exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

In another TV spot featuring Obama’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, the president’s campaign said women are “paid 77 cents on the dollar for doing the same work as men.” That’s not true. In 2010, the Census found that “the earnings of women who worked full time, year-round were 77 percent of that for men working full time, year-round.” But that’s the median (midpoint) for all women in all jobs, not a figure for women doing “the same work” or even necessarily working the same number of hours.

Obama’s War on Women, April 12

Obama’s 77-Cent Exaggeration, June 22

Twisting Romney’s Abortion Stance, July 9

Stimulus Hyperbole

The Romney campaign and his supporters have sought to portray the stimulus program as rife with waste, particularly clean-energy loan programs. One Romney campaign ad said “[t]he inspector general said contracts were steered to ‘friends and family.’ ” But Gregory Friedman, the inspector general for the Department of Energy, did not say that. He said the office was investigating that kind of thing, but no charges have been made, at least not yet.

A new TV ad by the Romney campaign called “Where Did All the Money Go” claimed stimulus funds went for “electric cars from Finland.” The conservative Americans for Prosperity made a similar charge in an earlier ad. Both are referring to Fisker Automotive, which received more than $500 million in loans. It’s true that Fisker builds cars in Finland, but the stimulus money went for engineering, sales, and design and marketing in the U.S. “The money could not be, and was not, spent on overseas operations,” the Department of Energy says.

The new ad asked the question: “Where did all the Obama stimulus money go?” A breakdown of the $840 billion stimulus can be found on the Recovery Board’s website. Most of it went for tax credits to U.S. taxpayers and grants to states for Medicare, Medicaid and education.

Stimulus Money for Jobs Overseas? May 2

Romney’s Solar Flareout, June 1

Taxes: Broken Promise?

An attack ad from Crossroads GPS made the largely false claim that Obama broke a promise to not increase taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year. Obama actually cut taxes for such families, first through the stimulus tax credit in effect for 2009 and 2010, and beginning in 2011, through a reduction in the payroll tax for all workers.

Obama’s 2 percentage point reduction in the Social Security payroll tax started in 2011 and is scheduled to continue through the end of 2012. The cut is equal to $1,000 this year for a worker making $50,000 a year — or as much as $2,202 to any worker earning at least the maximum taxable level of wages or salary ($110,100 for 2012). Prior to that, he signed the stimulus bill into law, which included the “Making Work Pay” tax credit that benefited nearly all working families and was in effect from 2009 through 2010. That credit was worth a maximum of $400 per person, or $800 for couples during those years.

Crossroads GPS based its claim on taxes that mostly have yet to be implemented under the federal health care law, otherwise known as the Affordable Care Act. But most of the law’s taxes would specifically fall on businesses and corporations, or individuals making at least $200,000 and families making more than $250,000 a year.

A Bogus Tax Attack Against Obama, May 17

Spinning Jobs Data

Perhaps the most important issue of the campaign is jobs, yet so much of the political banter has been less about how to create more jobs than about the candidates distorting their own or each other’s record on jobs.

For example, the Obama campaign claimed in an ad that when Romney was governor,   Massachusetts “fell to 47th in job creation.” It’s true that over Romney’s four years as governor, the state ranked 47th out of 50 states in percentage of job growth. It had ranked 37th in the four years prior.

There’s another way to look at the numbers. Instead of looking at the cumulative, four-year ranking, the Romney campaign prefers to cite the year-to-year progress.

In the 12 months before Romney took office, the state ranked 50th in job creation, and for his first 12 months in office, the state remained 50th. But by his final year, the state ranked 28th. That’s still mediocre, but an improvement, and not a decline, as the ad would lead viewers to believe.

On the other hand, the “50th to 28th” narrative touted by the Romney campaign absolves Romney of all responsibility for job creation in his first year, a concession Republicans never grant to Obama.

Both sides do it. The president’s typical stump speech makes reference to private-sector job growth during the last two years or so. By lopping off the worst of the recession early in his presidency and focusing on just private-sector jobs, Obama is able to claim that businesses have created “over 4 million jobs in the last 27 months.” But if one looks at all jobs (including government jobs) over the entirety of Obama’s time in office — as the Obama campaign does when it looks at Romney’s record as governor — there has been a net loss of jobs.

In a campaign speech in June, Obama claimed he created more private-sector jobs in the past 27 months than President George W. Bush created “during the entire seven years before this crisis.” But that’s like comparing apples and mangoes. The president is absolving himself of responsibility for the savage recession he inherited, while assigning to Bush responsibility for the recession that began within weeks of his taking office in 2001.

The fact is, the economy has gained just about the same number of private-sector jobs (Obama’s preferred measure) in the 27 months since the most recent job slump hit bottom as it did in the 27 months following the bottom of the first Bush slump. And looking at total jobs — the broader and more customary measure — Bush’s post-slump job creation record was significantly better than Obama’s.

A Romney ad, meanwhile, put its own spin on jobs statistics, claiming that as governor, “Romney had the best jobs record in a decade.” Massachusetts added more net jobs during Romney’s four years in office than during the four-year period of either his predecessor or successor. But that ignores the national recessions before and after Romney’s time in office. If you look at how Massachusetts stacked up on job creation compared with other states, Romney actually fared worse than his predecessor and successor.

The same ad claimed Romney “reduced unemployment to just 4.7 percent.” Massachusetts’ unemployment rate went from 5.6 percent to 4.6 percent under Romney. But the state’s unemployment rate was slightly lower than the national rate when he took office, and was roughly the same as the national rate when he left office.

Obama Twists Romney’s Economic Record, June 7

Romney’s Jobs Record Is Best (or Worst), June 8

Obama’s Economic Sleight of Hand, June 15

Bain: Killing Jobs?

In recent weeks, the Obama campaign has been focused like a laser beam on Romney’s wealth — particularly on how he earned his money at Bain Capital, a venture-capital firm founded by Romney in 1984. The Obama campaign accused Romney in a series of TV ads of being a “corporate raider” who “shipped jobs to China and Mexico.”

There’s no question that Bain invested in companies that outsourced work to others here and abroad. There’s also no question that Bain invested in companies that manufactured goods in foreign and domestic plants. The Obama campaign’s claim that “he [Romney] shipped jobs to China and Mexico” comes down to a few examples of management decisions at companies in which Bain invested after Romney took a leave of absence from Bain in February 1999 to run the 2002 Winter Olympics. Romney wasn’t actively in charge of the firm at the time and, as it turned out, did not return to the firm after February 1999.

Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager of Obama’s reelection committee, suggested Romney may have committed a felony. “Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony. Or he was misrepresenting his position at Bain to the American people to avoid responsibility for some of the consequences of his investments,” Cutter said. But Jill E. Fisch, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and co-director of the Institute for Law and Economics, told us: “If that really mattered to investors, they might consider that a civil liability, but we wouldn’t be talking about a felony.”

It’s also simply inaccurate to call Romney a “corporate raider.” We have documented instances in which Bain enriched itself and its investors with hefty fees and dividend payments that left companies heavily in debt and vulnerable to bankruptcy. But that doesn’t make Romney a corporate raider, which has a specific meaning in the business world. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a corporate raider is “one who mounts an unwelcome takeover bid by buying up shares (usu. discreetly) on the stock market.” Bain didn’t engage in hostile takeovers when Romney was at the helm.

Obama’s ‘Outsourcer’ Overreach, June 29

FactCheck.org to Obama Camp: Your Complaint is All Wet, July 2

Romney’s Bain Years: New Evidence, Same Conclusion, July 12

Bain: Creating Jobs?

During the early stages of the GOP primary, Romney took to claiming that he created more than 100,000 net jobs through his work in the private sector. But the claim that he created that many net jobs while at Bain Capital is unproven.

It’s true that the private equity firm Bain Capital invested in many companies that went on to add jobs. But there’s no thorough count of the jobs gained and lost in all the companies in which the firm invested.

When we asked the Romney camp for support, spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom sent us a list of jobs added at three companies in which Bain had invested, saying that these three companies alone created over 100,000 jobs: Staples, which had 89,000 employees as of Dec. 31, 2010; The Sports Authority, which had 15,000 employees as of July 2011; and Domino’s, which has added 7,900 jobs since 1999. But it’s highly debatable whether Bain, and Romney, deserve credit for all of the jobs created, particularly when there were other investors, executives who launched or ran the companies, and new owners in later years. And that count does not include job losses that occurred at other companies that Bain acquired, such as 385 jobs cut at American Pad & Paper, 1,900 positions cut or relocated at Dade International, 2,100 workers laid off from DDI Corp., 2,500 jobs lost at Clear Channel Communications, and 3,400 layoffs at KB Toys.

Romney’s Shaky Job Claims, Jan. 5

Blame Game, Part 1

A 17-minute Obama campaign film included the curious claim from narrator Tom Hanks that Obama “would not dwell in blame” for inheriting a huge economic mess.

It’s true that Obama did not blame outgoing President George W. Bush or the Republicans for the deepening recession in his inauguration speech in 2009. But in numerous public statements over a course of many, many months, Obama used a metaphor — involving getting a car out of a ditch — to repeatedly cast blame for the economic crisis.

The president used the metaphor at least 72 times by our count. It became a staple of his stump speeches during the 2010 congressional midterm elections. We found 26 unique instances in which the president used the phrase “car out of the ditch.” There were another 46 events at which he gave a variation of that phrase — such as “car into the ditch,” “drove our economy into a ditch,” “we’ve gone into the ditch,” “they drove it into a ditch,” and “we went down into the ditch” and “finally we got that car back on level ground.” Sometimes, the Democrats were wearing muddy boots to retrieve the car and the Republicans were “sipping on a Slurpee.”

Car + Ditch=Blame, March 23

Blame Game, Part 2

Romney and his surrogates have on occasion blamed Obama for actions that had originated under Bush.

Speaking to the National Rifle Association, Romney railed against the “Obama EPA” and “how the Obama government interferes with personal freedom” — citing an EPA action taken in 2007, when Bush was president. The Bush administration’s EPA ordered a couple to stop building a home in the wetlands. The couple tried to sue but a Republican-nominated federal judge ruled in 2008 (when Bush was still president) that they were not entitled to a hearing on their appeal of the EPA’s compliance order. The Obama EPA continued the case, which went back to a lower court after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the couple’s favor.

In response to Obama’s charges of outsourcing by Bain Capital, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu claimed the president “outsourced a major portion of the U.S. space program to the Russians.” Sununu was referring to the July 14 launch of a Russian Soyuz spaceship that carried U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams to the International Space Station. But it was Bush who announced a “new vision” for NASA in 2004 that included ending the Space Shuttle program without having a replacement vehicle for at least four years. “Administration policy is to retire the shuttle in 2010 and purchase crew transport from Russia,” as Michael Griffin, who led NASA under Bush, once explained. Obama continued that policy.

Romney Misfires on EPA Anecdote, April 17

Sununu’s Out-of-this-World Outsourcing Claim, July 17

Buffett Rule

In an effort to pass the “Buffett Rule” legislation, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden gave the false impression that many, if not most, millionaires (people who earn $1 million or more a year) are paying a lower tax rate than the middle class. The fact is that even without the Buffett Rule “more than 99 percent of millionaires will pay” a higher tax rate than those in the very middle of the income range in fiscal year 2015, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.

In an April 10 speech, the president described the Buffett Rule this way: “[W]hat the rule says is you should pay the same percentage of your income in taxes as middle-class families do.” Two days later, Biden declared that Buffett is “not alone,” and there are “tens of thousands and several millions of people who are in that same situation.”

But Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, who spent 22 years at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, wrote that even without the Buffett Rule, only about 4,000 of those with $1-million-and-above incomes will pay less than the 15 percent effective federal tax rate that middle-income households will pay in fiscal year 2015. “The Buffett rule sounds good in principle,” Williams wrote. “High-income taxpayers should pay at least as large a share of their income in taxes as the rest of us. But most already do.”

Obama and the ‘Buffett Rule,’ April 13

The Facts About ‘Fat Cats,’ April 19

And, Of Course, Health Care

What list of whoppers would be complete without a few bogus health care claims? In response to the Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal law, Obama and Romney exchanged a flurry of false and misleading claims.

Romney claimed the law “puts the federal government between you and your doctor.” The health care law does set new minimum benefits packages, but that’s more a matter of coming between patients and their insurance companies, rather than patients and their doctors. Under the law, medical services will not be government-run, nor does the law allow for rationing of care.

Obama reiterated his “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” refrain, despite the fact that at least a few million workers won’t keep their employer-sponsored plans, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The latest CBO report on this topic found that under the most likely scenario, 3 million to 5 million fewer workers would get health insurance through their employers than would be the case without the law, from 2019 to 2022. Some of those employees would make the switch voluntarily, choosing “to obtain coverage from another source,” CBO said.

Sorry, But …

So, where are we now? The campaign got to the point that on consecutive days a surrogate for each candidate issued one of those “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” apologies. 

First, Sununu created a stir when he said this during a July 17 media call arranged by the Romney campaign: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” Within hours, Sununu was on CNN to issue a semi-apology and explain what he meant to say: “I apologize for using those words. But I don’t apologize for the idea that this president has demonstrated that he does not understand how jobs are created in America.”

A day later, the Democratic National Committee released a video (titled “Dancing Around the Issues”) attacking Romney for failing to release more than two years of his tax returns. The video featured his wife’s horse in a dressage competition. Ann Romney has multiple sclerosis and took up horse training as therapy. The DNC (sort of) apologized for it. DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse told ABC News that the DNC did not mean for the video to “offend” Ann Romney. “We regret it if it did. We were simply making a point about Governor Romney’s failure to give straight answers on a variety of issues in this race.”

Nasty, brutish and … long, indeed.

— by Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, D’Angelo Gore and Robert Farley

“over 92 percent of the jobs lost under this president were lost by women,”