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Sorting out the truth in politics

Here come the campaign ads

Labor Day weekend marks the kickoff of the fall TV season — not sitcoms and reality shows, but campaign ads. To help make sense of the impending avalanche of ads, we present the Message Machine Fall TV Preview, part of a PolitiFact-NPR partnership to fact-check the 2010 campaign. PolitiFact has a unique perch to watch the TV ads. Our six state partners (in Florida, Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) are fact-checking claims in their states, and our national staff is checking commercials in many others. We've seen candidates from both sides rely heavily on party playbooks and, in many cases, recite the same lines. So here's our preview of what you'll be hearing in the next two months:

My opponent is a lobbyist! We heard this a lot in the primary campaigns and we'll hear it again for the general election. With voters so unhappy with Washington, candidates who can be linked to the political establishment — particularly if they were Gucci-wearing lobbyists for the SPECIAL INTERESTS — are easy targets. Case in point: J.D. Hayworth, an Arizona Republican who served as a lobbyist before he ran unsuccessfully against Sen. John McCain. A McCain ad mocked him for claiming to be an outsider by showing images of private jets and limos, and said his lobbying work was "as inside Washington as it gets." We rated McCain's claim True, but we found other candidates who exaggerated the definition of lobbyist.

Insiders acting like outsiders. Insiders are going to great lengths to pretend to be outsiders. Members of Congress have always portrayed themselves as independent of the Washington power structure, but it's especially true this year because Congress' approval ratings have been hovering near historic lows. Blanche Lincoln, a Democratic senator from Arkansas, has an ad that likens Washington to children fighting in a preschool class. She says, "I don't answer to my party. I answer to Arkansas." It's important to look beyond the rhetoric, though: Lincoln last year voted with her party 83 percent of the time.

Where are the jobs? This has been a favorite theme for Republicans, who repeatedly cite high unemployment numbers and claim the Democratic stimulus plan has done little to create jobs. We've heard this in the Nevada Senate race and you'll likely hear it in other states. You'll also hear a variation that Democrats "promised" unemployment would not exceed 8 percent if the stimulus passed, a claim we have rated Barely True.

My opponent is the candidate of Big Oil (or BP)! The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped, but images of oil gushing into the water are still fresh in voters' minds, so you can expect candidates to try to link their opponents to "Big Oil" and BP any time they can. But watch for exaggerations. We found Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican running for Senate, stretched the truth when he claimed in an ad that his opponent's top aide was "a longtime BP lobbyist." The aide had actually worked to help with real estate deals for BP gas stations.

Bad bankers. With bankers now as unpopular as lobbyists (and members of Congress!), we've already seen several ads that criticize candidates for their banking ties. An ad for Kirk criticized Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias for making loans to alleged mobsters … "and then the bank collapsed." This ad, like so many attack ads, glosses over the facts and exaggerates Giannoulias' role. We rated it Half True.

Stimulus silliness. Republicans have tried to portray the stimulus as wasteful and ineffective, so watch for lots of claims about frivolous projects included in the bill. You'll also hear claims from the flip side — that incumbents did not get enough stimulus money for their states.

Oldies but goodies. Some political attacks never go out of style, so you can expect to hear lines from past campaigns. Democrats will paint Republicans as puppets of the special interests, and Republicans will claim Democrats want to raise taxes. And you can be sure both sides will complain that the other side is running too many negative ads.

Here come the campaign ads 09/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 10:57pm]
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