PolitiFact-Check-A-Thon calls out misleading TV ads in 2016 primaries

Published March 11, 2016

TV attack ads have swamped Florida ahead of Tuesday's primaries, with much of the fire trained at Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. The ads from super PACs and official campaigns typically claim that one or the other isn't ready to be president, or highlight unsavory incidents from the candidates' past.

Some of the claims are accurate, but many we checked are not. PolitiFact spent the week watching ads and rating their claims on the Truth-O-Meter.

We fact-checked ads airing in Florida and around the country thanks to a partnership with the Internet Archive, an independent nonprofit that is collecting and preserving ads through its Political TV Ad Archive. The archive records commercials and documents how often and where they air in eight states, including Florida.

The summaries on Page 4P document PolitiFact's findings. To see the full fact-checks and watch the ads online, go to

Trump denounced KKK

A pro-Rubio super PAC, Conservative Solutions, highlights an interview between Trump and CNN's Jake Tapper in which Tapper asked repeatedly if Trump would disavow support from Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Trump responded that he first had to "look at the group."

The ad, which has run more than 430 times in the Tampa, Orlando and Miami markets, closes, "Trump refuses to denounce the KKK. Think about that — for president?"

The ad misleads by leaving out that Trump has denounced Duke both before and after the Tapper interview. In a 1991 talk with CNN's Larry King, Trump said he "hated" Duke's success with white voters in a failed bid for the Louisiana governorship and what it represented. Trump also called Duke "a bigot, a racist, a problem" in a 2000 interview with Matt Lauer.

Trump's criticism of Duke has been less pointed in 2016, but Trump has rejected Duke's support in subsequent TV interviews, calling him a "bad person who I disavowed on numerous occasions over the years." The claim rates Mostly False.

Rubio, Obama, truancy

A commercial by the super PAC Right to Rise USA, which supported former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, shows a silhouette of Rubio and criticizes him for his lack of foreign policy experience.

"Way too often, Rubio didn't even show up," the narrator says as a box on the screen tags Rubio as having "one of the worst attendance records in the Senate." The silhouette morphs into President Barack Obama as the narrator asks, "What other junior senator had the same resume?"

The data show that both Rubio and Obama missed a lot of votes while running for president. But Rubio started skipping votes a lot earlier than Obama did. At this stage of the campaign, Rubio has missed more votes than any other senator in the past year, and Obama was missing more votes than 98 percent of his colleagues. Their attendance records qualify as "one of the worst." The statement is True.

Missed Kurds vote

A PAC supporting Sen. Ted Cruz picked up on Rubio's voting record on defense spending.

"Did you know Marco Rubio skipped 18 defense votes, including one to arm the Kurds to fight ISIS?" asks the narrator in an ad from Keep the Promise I, a PAC largely funded by hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer.

Yes, Rubio skipped the votes, but this ad doesn't tell viewers that all of them pertain to one bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. Most were procedural amendments, except for the one that happened two days before the final vote dealing with weapons and training for the Kurdistan Regional Government. On June 16, the Senate voted 54-45 for the amendment, but that wasn't high enough to meet the 60-vote threshold for passage. Rubio skipped the vote but was a co-sponsor of the amendment.

Another point the ad omits: Rubio voted for the overall bill, and Cruz voted against it. Cruz explained he would not vote for a defense bill "that continued to allow the president to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens by indefinitely detaining them without due process."

The ad's claim rates Half True.

PAC tweaks attack

Another Conservative Solutions ad that aired in major Florida cities said Trump "bans disabled veterans from his high rise."

But Trump didn't really kick out disabled veterans from Trump Tower, a 68-story condo and retail building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Instead, he wanted to ban disabled veterans who were given special licenses to peddle from selling their wares in front of the tower. Nothing in the ad makes it clear that Trump's beef was related to street vendors.

After the ad first aired, the PAC changed the ad to say Trump "bans veterans from in front of his high rise." A spokesman said it was "to be more specific." The ad's original statement, however, rates Mostly False.

Clinton, bank cash

Conservative PAC Future45 blasts Hillary Clinton's Wall Street connections in a spot that opens with an actress portraying Clinton opening a check from Goldman Sachs.

"Hillary Clinton gave speeches to the biggest banks on Wall Street after one of the worst financial crises in American history," the narrator says. "But Hillary won't tell us what she said to those banks who paid her over $1 million and are contributing millions more to elect her."

Based on records released by her campaign, Clinton has made nearly $4 million speaking to financial services firms, and half came from big banks like Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, where she spoke three times in 2013, each appearance raking in $225,000.

The Future45 ad makes it seem like the big banks that paid Clinton for speeches are the same ones donating millions to elect her. According to, donors from these five big banks have contributed a combined $628,435 to her campaign and allied outside groups. That's far less than "millions." The statement rates Half True.

Bailout didn't come

Clinton stood outside of Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. in a TV spot ahead of the March 1 caucus in Minnesota, which she lost to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

"This is Johnson Controls," Clinton says. "When the auto industry was going under, car parts companies like them begged taxpayers for a bailout and they got one."

Clinton was taking issue with the company moving its headquarters to Ireland to evade taxes. The company did push Congress to approve the 2008-09 federal bailout of the automakers as the recession took hold. It certainly would've taken a major hit had the automakers gone under. But it did not directly receive any bailout funds.

The claim rates Half True.

Unemployed tally high

Ohio Gov. John Kasich hopes to win his state's delegates Tuesday. A campaign ad begins with footage of an unemployment line and a narrator saying, "20 million Americans are out of work."

But the official unemployment number in February tops out at about 7.8 million. When we asked the Kasich campaign how they got to 20 million, they pointed to our own work. Specifically, methodology in an August fact-check of Trump, who incorrectly claimed, "We have 93 million people out of work."

That number was wrong because it included full-time students, senior citizens, the disabled and those who have chosen to take care of their children full time. However, in the process we conducted a mathematical experiment in which we played with possible numbers of Americans who are "out of work" that fit somewhere between the official unemployment rate (on the low end) and Trump's number (on the high end).

A Kasich spokesman said the campaign simply updated our math with more recent data, resulting in 20 million. However, we said our calculation was not intended to determine the actual number of out-of-work Americans, but rather to suggest the highest figure with any sort of credibility as a way of seeing how far out of line Trump's claim was. Kasich's statement rates Half True.

Footage distorted

Another ad from the pro-Cruz Keep the Promise I, which played prominently in South Carolina, makes the case against Trump using his own words to suggest that he supports a health care program that will "take care of everybody" and "the government's gonna pay for it."

The ad left out crucial parts of Trump's September interview on CBS News' 60 Minutes, including Trump saying that he was talking about people of limited means, the lower 25 percent, who can't afford private insurance. Also missing was Trump saying that, for the most part, he sees people picking the deal they like from competing private plans.

By omitting those key phrases, the ad delivers the message that Trump backs government-sponsored health care for everyone. And that message rates False.

No raises

Clinton pledged to "root out" several barriers to progress in a TV ad that aired ahead of the South Carolina primary, offering a statistic to underscore the challenges facing average Americans.

"Americans haven't had a raise in 15 years," she says in the ad, which aired more than 150 times in the Columbia, S.C., market the week before the Feb. 27 Democratic primary there, which Clinton won.

According to an analysis of census data by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, median household income dropped from $57,843 in January 1999 to $53,657 in January 2014, the most recent period for which statistics are available. That's a 7 percent drop.

Another way to measure whether Americans have "had a raise" would be to look at a narrower slice of the population: full-time workers over the age of 16. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which draws on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the median usual weekly earnings increased 2 percent from $334 a week in January 2000 to $341 in January 2015. We rate the claim Mostly True.

First 'prolife' FLOTUS

Cruz hails wife Heidi Cruz's antiabortion views in an ad featuring James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Dobson said she "will be the very first prolife first lady."

Really? The campaign sent us a story stating that all first ladies since the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in 1973, have supported a woman's choice on abortion. But Dobson said the "very first," and experts say it is hard to find a first lady commenting on abortion before the ruling.

The Vietnam War was a turning point for first ladies being asked about their views on political issues, said Carl Sferrazza Anthony, considered the foremost historian on the political and social power of first ladies.

Every first lady since Roe vs. Wade has publicly expressed support for a woman's choice on abortion, including Nancy Reagan and the Bush wives. But we cannot pin down the views of every one ever.

We rate the claim Mostly True.

PolitiFact reporters Riley Snyder, C. Eugene Emery Jr., Amy Sherman, Jon Greenberg, Lauren Carroll, Louis Jacobson, Jason Noble, Tom Kertscher and Alan Gathright contributed.