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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Final Attack Ads

Both sides in the presidential race are making one last push for votes with false and distorted claims on television, radio and even in text messages:

  • A liberal super PAC’s radio ad in Ohio twists Mitt Romney’s words by having him say six times: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He actually said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
  • A conservative super PAC falsely claims in a TV ad that President Obama’s health care law “creates an unaccountable new board that can cut Medicare benefits with no notice — and no one, not even Congress can stop it.” It is not “unaccountable.” It cannot “cut Medicare benefits.” And Congress can vote to “stop” its proposals.
  • A pro-Romney super PAC falsely claims that “America’s health care is becoming more like the Canadian system.” But the health care law signed by Obama does not impose a single-payer, taxpayer-supported system like Canada’s.
  • Planned Parenthood Action Fund is running a radio ad in Ohio, Colorado and Virginia, that falsely claims Romney wants to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood. Romney said he wants to eliminate federal funding for the organization, not end it.
  • An Obama campaign radio ad in Florida falsely claims that the Bush-era tax cuts led to the 2008 financial meltdown. A national commission that examined the causes of the crisis did not list the tax cuts as a factor in its 2011 report.
  • A Virginia-based Republican firm is sending text messages that, among other things, falsely claims Obama has raised taxes by $2,000 on “the average American.” Not only have income tax rates remained unchanged, but Obama cut payroll taxes and provided a tax credit benefiting average Americans.

Twisting Romney’s Words on the ‘Very Poor’

While campaigns historically turn to positive ads in the days just prior to the election, the same is not true for independent groups.

In Ohio, a newly formed super PAC called Black Men Vote, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the final days on radio ads, including one that makes two false claims:

  • It takes a statement that Romney made about the very poor out of context — six times in 60 seconds. Listeners hear Romney say over and over, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” He actually said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
  • The ad also says Romney “wants to cut taxes for rich people.” His tax plan would cut tax rates, but not necessarily taxes. He says his plan will be revenue neutral, but he has not provided a complete plan — so the distributional effects of it are not known.

Black Men Vote was formed only two months ago — boosted by a $250,000 contribution from hip-hop star Prakazrel Michel. To date, it has spent a little more than $1 million — much of it recently on radio ads in Ohio.

Its latest radio ad, which began airing in Cleveland on Oct. 31, starts with an audio clip of the Rev. Al Sharpton saying, “Mitt Romney had this to say.” The ad then plays Romney saying, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” But Romney’s words — which he said on CNN — are cut off mid-sentence, and distort what he actually said.

Here’s Romney’s complete thought:

Romney, Feb. 1, 2012: I’m in this race ’cause I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor; we have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America – the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I’ll continue to take that message across the nation.

A reading of this makes it clear that Romney said he does care about the poor — at least enough to maintain the safety net and fix it “if it needs repair.”

The ad could have easily used another clip from this very statement to claim that Romney doesn’t care about the very rich — but, in fact, the ad makes the opposite claim. It says that Romney not only doesn’t care about the poor, but that “he wants to cut taxes for rich people.”

The Obama campaign has repeatedly made false statements about Romney’s tax plan — which would reduce tax rates across the board by 20 percent, among other things. The Obama campaign has said that the plan will provide tax cuts to the wealthy and increase taxes on the middle class. But as the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has said: “Because Gov. Romney has not specified how he would increase the tax base, it is impossible to determine how the plan would affect federal tax revenues or the distribution of the tax burden.”

Gross ‘Obamacare’ Falsehoods

Super PAC for America, a group formed by media consultant and political commentator Dick Morris, packs numerous bogus claims about the federal health care law into 30 seconds.

It falsely claims the federal health care law:

  • “Ends Medicare Advantage.” The law reduces payment levels for Medicare Advantage, which covers Medicare beneficiaries through private insurance. It doesn’t end it.
  • “Creates an unaccountable new board that can cut Medicare benefits with no notice — and no one, not even Congress can stop it.” The Independent Payment Advisory Board, by law, cannot cut benefits, and it is accountable to Congress, which can vote to reject the board’s recommendations.
  • “Cuts Medicare by $716 billion.” This bogus claim has been cited so often it landed on our 2012 Whoppers list. The law would slow the future growth of Medicare spending by $716 billion over 10 years, mostly through reductions in payments to medical providers.

The TV ad, titled “Obamacare Hurts Seniors,” started running Nov. 1 in Pennsylvania. It repeats some of the false claims that we covered in “A Campaign Full of Mediscare,” such as the claim about “cutting” Medicare by $716 billion. But the ad in two instances distorts familiar bogus claims far beyond what we’ve heard before when it discusses Medicare Advantage and the Independent Payment Advisory Board.

Medicare Advantage, which covers about 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, will see reduced payment levels through 2017, to bring its costs in line with traditional Medicare. Medicare Advantage plans receive higher payments from the government on average than traditional Medicare. It was 9 percent higher in 2010.

Phasing out extra payments to Medicare Advantage will reduce Medicare spending, is likely to reduce added benefits that Medicare Advantage subscribers enjoy (such as an extra free pair of eyeglasses or gym memberships), and reduce total participation in Medicare Advantage. Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told Congress in March 2011, that enrollment in Medicare Advantage will decline by about 60 percent by 2017, when the payment changes are fully phased in.

But it’s not ending. Here’s what the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said about the current and future state of Medicare Advantage:

Kaiser Family Foundation, November 2011: Over the longer term, companies offering Medicare Advantage plans may respond to payment changes in different ways, depending on the circumstances of the company, the location of their plans, their historical commitment to the Medicare market, their ability to leverage efficiencies in the delivery of care to enrollees, and possibly their quality ratings and bonus payments. Decisions made by these firms could have important implications for beneficiaries with respect to their choice of plans, out-of-pocket costs, and access to providers.

As for the claim about Medicare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board, the ad packs three false statements into a single sentence. It is not “unaccountable.” It cannot “cut Medicare benefits.” And Congress can “stop” the board’s recommendations.

The law (page 490) says that the board cannot make “any recommendation to ration health care … or otherwise restrict benefits.” Furthermore, as we wrote before, Congress can override the board’s recommendations for reducing spending with a three-fifths majority of both houses of Congress, or it could institute its own reductions of an equal amount to what the board puts forth.

Not a Canadian-Style Health Care System

A conservative super PAC Americans for Prosperity has revived content from a 2009 ad — making the misleading claim that the health care law is a step toward the Canadian system — in a last-minute attack against Obama. The ad features the testimonial of a Canadian woman, Shona Holmes, who sought treatment for a brain condition in the U.S. after she says she learned that delays to getting treatment through Canada’s government-run health care system could prove fatal.

The ad then shows the words, “But under President Obama, America’s health care is becoming more like the Canadian system that failed Shona.”

Longtime faithful readers of FactCheck.org may be feeling a sense of deja vu. We wrote about an ad featuring Holmes back in 2009, when Americans for Prosperity was making a pitch against the health care law.

We noted that CBC News (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) aired a story July 31 quoting a top neurosurgeon in Canada saying that the claim that Holmes would have died is “an exaggeration.” Holmes was diagnosed with Rathke’s cleft cyst, a rare, benign cyst that forms near the pituitary gland. It’s not known to be fatal. Another neurosurgeon told CBC News that he’d never heard of someone dying from the condition.

Back then, we also asked the Mayo Clinic — where Holmes was treated — about the usual prognosis of the condition. Fredric Meyer, M.D., chair of neurosurgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., responded in a statement that “RCC is a benign lesion and is not typically life-threatening.”

After our story ran, Holmes released a statement through Americans for Prosperity in which she says her husband “was told in no uncertain terms that if I waited the time scheduled to see specialists back in Canada I would be dead.” Holmes noted that she was suing the Canadian government and could not release her medical files, but she said that she suffered from a rare disorder and that doctors she spoke with before and after her treatment said she needed surgery within hours to days.

Ultimately, we don’t know what an American doctor may have told Holmes’ husband about whether her condition was life-threatening, or whether there were complicating factors with her conditions that might have made it so.

Perhaps more importantly, as we noted in our original story about an ad that featured Holmes in 2009, the health care law does not impose a single-payer system like Canada’s, where all citizens have health care coverage provided by the government and paid for with taxes. Under the health care law signed by Obama, Americans would continue to buy insurance on the private market.

Planned Parenthood Piffle

In a radio ad running in Colorado, Ohio and Virginia, Planned Parenthood Action Fund claims that Romney wants to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood. That’s not true. Romney said he wants to eliminate federal funding for the organization.

Although it’s unclear how much federal funding goes toward Planned Parenthood, less than half of the organization’s total revenue comes from government sources, including state budgets.

Romney did utter the words “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that” while talking with a Missouri television reporter in March. But he was talking about ways to reduce the federal debt and therefore federal spending. The program would not be eliminated, despite attempts by Democrats to spin Romney’s words.

The “spending” section on Romney’s website specifically targets “Title X Family Planning Funding,” which the federal government awards to organizations such as Planned Parenthood.

The federal government awarded $317.5 million to Title X clinics such as Planned Parenthood in fiscal year 2010. But as we’ve written before, Planned Parenthood doesn’t receive all of that money.

Planned Parenthood told us in 2011 that it received about $70 million in Title X money during the 2008-09 year, which was 19 percent of all government sources of revenue for that year.

Romney has also said that, in general, he will “remove funding for Planned Parenthood. It will not be part of my budget.” But it’s difficult to assess how much federal funding beyond Title X goes toward the organization.

Planned Parenthood’s 2009-2010 annual report listed $1,048,200,000 in total revenue. The organization said 46 percent — or $487 million — of its revenue came from “government health services, grants and reimbursements.”

Not all of that money came from the federal government. That figure includes money from Title X and other funding sources such as Medicaid, which includes federal and state funds.

Tall Tax Cut Tale

The Obama campaign is airing a radio ad in Florida that falsely claims that the Bush-era tax cuts led to the 2008 financial meltdown, and implies that Romney’s tax plan will cause more harm. A national commission that examined the causes of the crisis did not list the tax cuts as a factor in its 2011 report. And neither did we when we wrote in 2008 about the many factors contributing to the collapse.

Radio ad: More huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would just take us back to the same failed approach that drove Florida’s economy into the ditch four years ago.

In 2008, we cited several institutions for the meltdown. They included:

  • The Clinton administration, which pushed for less stringent credit and downpayment requirements for working- and middle-class families.
  • Wall Street firms who paid too little attention to the quality of the risky loans that they bundled into Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS), and issued bonds using those securities as collateral.
  • The Bush administration, which failed to provide needed government oversight of the increasingly dicey mortgage-backed securities market.

And in 2011, the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis of the United States offered plenty of reasons in a 600-plus page report.

While the vulnerabilities that created the potential for crisis were years in the making, it was the collapse of the housing bubble—fueled by low interest rates, easy and available credit, scant regulation, and toxic mortgages— that was the spark that ignited a string of events, which led to a full-blown crisis in the fall of 2008…

The crisis reached seismic proportions in September 2008 with the failure of Lehman Brothers and the impending collapse of the insurance giant American International Group (AIG). Panic fanned by a lack of transparency of the balance sheets of major financial institutions, coupled with a tangle of interconnections among institutions perceived to be “too big to fail,” caused the credit markets to seize up. Trading ground to a halt. The stock market plummeted. The economy plunged into a deep recession.

Nowhere in the lengthy report does it list the Bush tax cuts as one of the causes of the economic meltdown.

There are a lot of people, institutions and policies to blame for the crisis — the effects of which are still being felt in Florida, where the foreclosure rate ranks highest in the nation. But the Bush tax cuts aren’t among them.

The radio ad also repeats two other false claims. It says the Romney-Ryan Medicare plan “threatens to raise Florida seniors out-of-pocket health care costs by more than $6,000 a year,” while doling out “a massive new $5 trillion tax cut” that will benefit “millionaires and billionaires.” Neither claim is true.

As we noted in our Aug. 14 item “Outdated Attacks on Ryan,” the claim that the GOP Medicare plan will cost seniors more than $6,000 a year stems from a less generous plan Ryan released last year, not his most recent budget plan. There is no estimate for how much Ryan’s might cost seniors, if anything. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which is where the $6,000 figure comes from in the first place, says only that “beneficiaries might face higher costs” under the new Ryan plan.

And, as we also wrote before, Romney promises his tax plan will be offset by reducing tax deductions and credits and won’t add to the deficit — so he is not proposing “a massive new $5 trillion tax cut.”

Viral Texts

Technology has made it possible for campaigns to push out their message in a lot of new ways. Reuters reported that a Virginia-based Republican advertising firm, ccAdvertising, appeared to have found a legal loophole allowing it to send out a flood of unsolicited anti-Obama text messages.

The texts could actually cost the receiver of them money if they don’t have an unlimited data plan, Reuters noted. On top of that, they might be paying for political messages that aren’t accurate.

Reuters correspondent Alina Selyukh provided us with a list of 11 different text messages passed on to her by colleagues who had received them. They deal with a variety of topics ranging from taxes, to debt, to abortion. We chose two to point out that they also contain misleading information.

The first is a text that claims, “The average American pays at least $2000 more in taxes than 4 years ago. STOP OBAMA!” That’s not accurate. Income tax rates have remained unchanged under Obama, and there have been two notable tax breaks that have benefited average Americans.

As we have noted before when Republicans made misleading claims about the president raising taxes on middle-income people, 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.

According to data from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, those in the middle quintile of cash income in 2008, the year before Obama took office, had an average income of $46,943, and had an average federal tax burden of $6,549. The average rate they paid was 14 percent.

In 2012, the average income for those in the middle income group rose to $50,863, and they paid an average federal tax burden of $7,165. But the average rate was almost identical, 14.1 percent.

So, the average federal tax burden for people in the middle quintile went up by $616. But their average income also rose by $3,920. More important, the rate was nearly identical.

Another text from the group made contradictory claims. One stated, “Medicare goes bankrupt in 4000 days while Obama plays politics with senior health.” Another said, “Seniors cant afford to have 4 more years of Obama budget cuts to Medicare.”

As we noted above, Obama’s health care law proposes to reduce the future growth of Medicare spending by $716 billion over the next 10 years. That will extend the solvency of the program by eight years, from 2016 to 2024.

Romney proposes to repeal those cuts along with the rest of the new health care law (although his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed to keep those same cuts, applying the savings to different ends). Romney’s plan would, in effect, return Medicare’s insolvency deadline back to 2016.  So, it is contradictory for the texts to fault Obama both for making cuts to the growth of Medicare while at the same time warning that he is doing nothing about the pending insolvency of the program.

The Hill reported that GoDaddy, a domain registrar, suspended the firm’s websites a day after the text messages started going out.

— Eugene Kiely, Robert Farley and Ben Finley