Thursday, September 18th, 2014

The Voter Guide: Seven key distortions of the campaign

Voting issues are center stage in Florida.
Voting issues are center stage in Florida.

With so many political jobs at stake around the country this year, you might expect campaigns would be different from state to state. But in fact-checking the campaigns, we've been surprised at the similarities. Candidates are reading from the same scripts regardless of whether they're running in California or Florida, in Nevada or Indiana.

And so we present our Voter's Guide for Election Day, a handy summary of the main claims we've checked. The links will take you to more in-depth reports and complete sources. Chances are, you've heard these lines and you may have wondered if they were true.

They're cutting Medicare!

We lost count of the Republican ads telling seniors to worry because Democrats had slashed $500 billion from Medicare, the government-run health insurance program for seniors. But each time, we've rated it a significant exaggeration. 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.

We looked at Republican Ron Johnson's claim that Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., cut Medicare by $523 billion and rated it Barely True, because it made it sounds like all the cuts were happening immediately. In California, we examined whether Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer voted for "cuts so costly to hospitals and nursing homes that they could stop taking Medicare altogether" and rated that Barely True as well. In Pennsylvania, we looked at the claim that Joe Sestak "voted to gut Medicare ... reducing benefits for 854,489 seniors" and jeopardizing "access to care for millions." That too got a Barely True; the health care law preserves access to basic care.

Most of the attacks have come from Republicans, but the attacks have gone the other way, too, with Democrats 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.

Republicans want to privatize Social Security!

We've also seen lots of scare tactics from Democrats about Social Security. Ads from Democrats said benefits are in jeopardy because Republicans want to "privatize" the retirement program.

Social Security is basically a pension program paid for with payroll taxes from today's workers. But some lawmakers, primarily Republicans, would like to reduce the future burden on the government by letting younger workers set aside part of their payroll taxes into individual retirement accounts. The attack ads leave out that Republicans who support such a plan -- which they call "personal" accounts -- don't want to change benefits for current retirees or those who are near retirement.

And while it's true that some Republicans support the plan, not all of them do. If younger workers are allowed to divert payroll taxes to retirement accounts, that's money that won't go to pay current retirees' benefits. So some sort of transitional funding would have to be found. Given the current budget picture, it's not clear where money for that would come from. That's what scuttled the plan during the George W. Bush administration, and some Republicans don't support the idea.

We found several ads that missed the mark on Social Security, either by a lot or a little:
 

  • We fact-checked an attack ad from Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wisc., that his Republican opponent Reid Ribble "wants to phase out Social Security, forcing Wisconsin seniors to fend for themselves." We rated that Pants on Fire.
  • 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.


"Obamacare!"

We've seen many Republican distortions about the health care law, derisively dubbed "Obamacare." Most ads are reruns of attacks made earlier this year during deliberations over the health care bill. Polls show many people are still confused and uncertain about what's in the new law, and these ads capitalize on that.

For example, we checked a claim from a U.S. Chamber of Commerce ad attacking Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Colo., that the law crushes small business with "billions in penalties." We rated that False. The health care law actually includes tax breaks for the smallest businesses or exempts them from penalties. In West Virginia, Republican candidate John Raese claimed that patients will have to see "a bureaucrat. That is called a panel," before they could see a doctor. We rated that Pants on Fire. We also looked at whether Tom Barrett, a Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin, "supports a government takeover of our health care." We rated that Pants on Fire, too.

Then there's the Viagra-for-sex-offenders attack. In Nevada, tea party candidate and Republican Sharron Angle said Sen. Harry Reid "voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders." There was a last-minute amendment to specifically ban prescriptions for Viagra for sex offenders who might qualify for tax credits to buy private health insurance. Democrats opposed the amendment on procedural grounds, because they believed it to be a delaying tactic. We rated Angle's statement Barely True.  In another race, an ad from the conservative American Action Network accused Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., voting for "Viagra for rapists" paid for with tax dollars. We rated that Pants on Fire -- Perlmutter is a House member and didn't even vote on the Senate amendment.

The largest tax increase in history?

We found plenty of distortions about taxes from both sides.

On the Republican side, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said that Democrats "are poised now to cause this largest tax increase in U.S. history." We looked at the Democratic plans, which propose letting different types of tax cuts expire for the wealthy. But those increases weren't close to the largest in history, so we rated her statement Pants on Fire. Palin questioned our findings on her Facebook page, claiming that Democrats don't actually have a plan for extending tax cuts. We pointed her to pages 39, 164 and 165 of President Obama's last budget proposal and rated her next statement False.

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. So we rated that Pants on Fire. And a chain e-mail attacking Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said that he and President Obama "will sneak in a 1 percent tax on all banking transactions." There's not a shred of evidence to support that, so we rated it Pants on Fire.

On the Democratic side, President Obama said Republicans "don't think it's a good idea" to make the child care tax credit stronger. We found that Republicans generally didn't like his tax plans, but there's no evidence they specifically oppose child tax credits.  We rated his statement Barely True.  House speaker Nancy Pelosi said a bill 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 -- Barely True. And in Virginia, Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello said his Republican opponent Robert Hurt "supports the tax loopholes that send American jobs overseas." We found no evidence that Hurt supported that and rated the claim False.

The stimulus: Jobs for China, Ants in Africa

The knock on the massive economic stimulus package passed last year is that the economy hasn't noticeably improved. Democrats contend it would have been even worse without the stimulus. Republicans, meanwhile, correctly note that the unemployment rate is the same or worse in many areas. Candidates have also used individual projects from the stimulus to attack their opponents.

In Ohio, for example, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Rob Portman correctly noted that "Ohio's lost over 100,000 more jobs" since the stimulus package passed. We rated that True. But Portman also claimed that an economist who favored the stimulus recently admitted that it wasn't working. Actually, the economist said, "We would be in a measurably worse place if not for the stimulus." So we rated Portman's claim Pants on Fire.

And over in Florida, Republican candidate Rick Scott went so far as to claim "The stimulus has not created one private sector job." Economists said that's just not true, and we even found and interviewed a person who got a private sector job through a stimulus program. So we rated Scott's statement Pants on Fire.

Finally, the stimulus has provided fodder for Republicans to say that Democrats are shipping jobs to China or voted for a study of ants in Africa.

Austin Scott, the Republican opponent of Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., said Marshall sent nearly $2 billion overseas to build wind turbines and create jobs, mostly in China. We've also checked similar claims in Wisconsin and Virginia, and noted other attacks in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio. We rated the attack on Marshall False, and here's why: The stimulus gives tax breaks to U.S. investors who want to created wind farms here in the United States. There was no requirement that the equipment be made in the U.S. It turns out that U.S. is not a major producer of turbine equipment, so investors had to buy turbine parts overseas and bring them to the United States to create the wind farms. While a little bit of the money is going to China, most of it is going to Europe. And even critics agree that a good bit of the money is staying in the country in the form of construction and manufacturing jobs, though the amount is unclear and most jobs are short-term.

And there's been lots of talk about ants. In Oregon, Republican candidate Jim Huffman said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden approved $2 million for the study of ants in Africa as part of the stimulus. We rated that False, because there's no line item for ants in the stimulus. Rather, the stimulus sent $3 billion to the National Science Foundation, which is distributing the money using the same peer-review process with which it normally decides on which research to fund. One scientist's study on ants of the Southwest Indian Ocean and East Africa made the cut, and the project has so far helped employ 16 people.

Foreign money in politics

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned restrictions on how much money corporations could spend in political races, and there's no doubt that injected more money into the campaigns. But Democrats have made unsubstantiated claims that foreign corporations are flooding the campaign with money. President Obama said that groups such as the U.S. Chamber that receive foreign money are spending "huge sums to influence American elections." The Chamber is spending, but there's little evidence that "huge sums" are from foreign companies, so we rated Obama's statement Half True. White House adviser David Axelrod pushed the claim further, suggesting that independent groups behind ads attacking Democratic candidates are "front groups for foreign-controlled companies." We rated that Barely True.

Finally, the deciding vote

Obama's legislative proposals passed by narrow margins in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. That's prompted a series of ads declaring certain Democrats "the deciding vote." But when margins are this close, pretty much every vote is the deciding vote. The National Republican Senatorial Committee said that Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., "cast the deciding vote" for the stimulus and the health care bill. We rated that Barely True -- there were other Senators who voted in favor of the bill but were on the fence until close to the end. Those votes were much more decisive. So we rated the NRSC's ad Barely True. In Oregon, the distortion was worse. Republican Scott Bruun said that Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader "cast the deciding vote that failed to extend tax cuts for Oregon's middle-class families and small businesses." Actually, a vote has yet to be held on extending tax cuts, so we rated that False.