Thursday, November 27th, 2014

The highs and lows of the 2010 campaign

The 2010 campaign was wild, woolly, and wacky. Among the oddest items in our campaign-season roundup was this ad portraying Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as a free-floating blimp.
The 2010 campaign was wild, woolly, and wacky. Among the oddest items in our campaign-season roundup was this ad portraying Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., as a free-floating blimp.

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Election 2010 was PolitiFact's second election cycle since our founding in 2010, and it's been a doozy. With the campaign over, we thought it was a good time for a trip down memory lane.

We've seen Democrat Jack Conway's ad in the Kentucky Senate race targeting Republican Rand Paul for a college-aged prank that involved the obscure mythical deity "Aqua Buddha."

We've seen Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., hit his Republican opponent, Dan Webster, for being an intolerant religious zealot he dubs "Taliban Dan."

We've seen ads produced by little-known conservatives Dale Peterson and Rick Barber become viral sensations.

We've seen ads featuring a roving psychopath straight from a horror movie (Republican Christine O'Donnell against Democrat Chris Coons in the Delaware Senate race); puppy mass murderers (what Democrat Pat Quinn accused Republican Bill Brady of being in the Illinois gubernatorial race); and at least two ads about Viagra for sex offenders.

And we've seen a bounty of odd, and sometimes effective, ads from GOP ad-making guru Fred Davis, including one on English-only policies for Alabama gubernatorial candidate Tim James; one that mocked Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., for her insignificant achievements in Congress by portraying her as a bloated, unharnessed blimp; and the head-turning "Demon Sheep" ad for Boxer's opponent, Carly Fiorina.

As we noted in a recent article, we gave a rating of Pants on Fire -- our lowest category -- to O'Donnell for apparently taking seriously the accusation that Coons copped to being a "bearded Marxist" during college. It was in fact a joke playing off the jabs of some of Coons' conservative buddies at college. She earned a second a few days later when she claimed that her campaign had taken the high road and hadn't "yet taken out a negative ad," conveniently forgetting the roving psychopath ad from just a week earlier.

Issues of substance were no better protected from inaccuracy this year, as we pointed out in an article on some of the biggest policy distortions of the campaign.

In the immigration debate, perhaps no fact was more widely misreported than the claim that Phoenix, Ariz., is the No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world. It was debunked over and over, but that didn't stop politicians, such as Ohio State Rep. Courtney Combs, from repeating it.

We checked some highly questionable claims regarding the new health care law. Republican John Raese earned one for saying during a West Virginia Senate debate that under the new law, "the first person (a) patient has to go to is a bureaucrat. That is called a panel." We found zero evidence to support that claim.

Republicans also targeted seniors with a blaze of ads accusing Democrats of slashing $500 billion from Medicare. Democrats did vote to reduce spending as part of the health care reform law, and it does sound like a humongous amount -- until you learn that the cuts are spread out over the next decade and aimed at parts of Medicare that are considered wasteful or ineffective.

Democrats countered by accusing Republicans of wanting to slash Medicare based on pledges to cut government spending. We looked at Boxer's claim that her Republican opponent, Carly Fiorina, had a plan that "would mean slashing Social Security and Medicare." We rated that Barely True. Fiorina's plans for the programs lack detail and certainly don't indicate a "slashing." In Ohio, Democratic incumbent Rep. Betty Sutton charged that her Republican opponent Tom Ganley would "'cut the dickens' out of Social Security, Medicare and Veterans' benefits." We rated that Pants on Fire, because Ganley was talking about discretionary spending, not entitlements.

The stimulus was another big target of Republican ads. In Florida, for instance, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott said in a press conference that "the stimulus has not created one private sector job." But we found plenty of evidence that not only were new jobs created, but hundreds of private employers in Florida signed up to provide them. The clincher: A Louisiana company where Scott is a part-owner sent out a press release proclaiming it had established 1,300 private jobs because of a stimulus grant.

Meanwhile, in the Florida Senate race, Gov. Charlie Crist went on CNN in late 2009 and told Wolf Blitzer "I never endorsed" the federal stimulus plan. Wait, wasn't there a big hug for President Barack Obama during a rally that year to push for passage of the $787 billion federal stimulus? Didn't he lobby Florida congressmen and women on both sides of the aisle to support the stimulus? Didn't he write a letter to the White House endorsing it? Yes, yes, and yes, we said. Also, Pants on Fire.

Democrats had boogeymen too. One was that Republicans wanted to privatize Social Security. While it's true that some Republicans support the plan, not all of them do. And Democrats in many cases were overzealous in their definition of "privatization" -- they left out caveats that the proposals would be voluntary and would not affect current beneficiaries or those who are nearing retirement age. For instance, we looked at a statement by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., that her Republican opponent Rep. John Boozman wants to privatize Social Security. We rated that Barely True. And in Colorado, we looked at Sen. Michael Bennet's charge that Republican Ken Buck wants to privatize Social Security. That got a Half True.

Another big Democratic boogeyman was the notion, supported by some but hardly all Republicans, of swapping the current tax code for a 23-percent sales tax. Problem is, the Democratic attacks sometimes implied that the new tax would go on top of the current tax system, rather than replacing it. We rated Lincoln Half True for one version of the attack.

We also found plenty of distortions about taxes from both sides.

Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, claimed that "94 percent of small businesses will face higher taxes under the Democrats' plan." The data shows that wealthy small business owners are actually 2 to 3 percent of all small business owners.

On the Democratic side, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said a measure to aid state and local governments "is fully paid-for by closing costly corporate tax loopholes." Actually, more than half of it was paid for with future cuts to the food stamp program, so we rated it Barely True.

We did find diamonds in the rough -- True or Mostly True statements from the ad wars. For instance, in the Kentucky Senate race, Conway ran an ad featuring several senior citizens who charged that Republican Rand Paul "wants us to pay $2,000 just to get Medicare." We found that the ad was basically fair in its use of Paul's own words from an earlier speaking engagement, though we marked it down slightly for oversimplifying Paul's proposal. We ruled the claim Mostly True.

On the GOP side, Republican Dino Rossi, who's running for Senate from Washington state, charged in an ad that his Democratic opponent, Sen. Patty Murray, "even defended the 'Bridge to Nowhere'" -- the roundly derided earmark for a bridge in a relatively unpopulated location in Alaska. We found that while Murray didn't defend that project by name in a Senate floor speech, it was clear that she felt the bridge, like other earmarks being discussed on the Senate floor, should be left alone. We rated the charge Mostly True.

We found one ad sponsored by a pro-Republican group called Citizens for the Republic for sticking to verifiably true statistics. The ad riffed on the famous Ronald Reagan ad "Morning in America" by presenting an updated version dubbed "Mourning in America." The ad said, correctly, that "fifteen million men and women won't have the opportunity to go to work," that "twenty-nine hundred families will have their homes foreclosed by nightfall," that "this afternoon, 6,000 men and women will be married," and that each child born in the U.S. will have "a $30,000 share of the runaway national debt." We rated the ad True.