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Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu May 22, 2016

Hillary Clinton wrong that no negative ads have hit Bernie Sanders

Hillary Clinton, who said this week she "will be the party’s nominee," emphasized on Meet the Press that she’s already won more votes than rival Bernie Sanders and she’ll also be the better prepared candidate for the fall.

When Chuck Todd pointed out that Sanders fares better than Clinton in head-to-head matchups against presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, Clinton suggested Sanders hasn’t been vetted as thoroughly as she’s been.

"Let me say that I don't think he's had a single negative ad ever run against him. And that's fine. But we know what we're going into, and we understand what it's going to take to win in the fall," she said. "And finally, I would say that, you know, polls this far out mean nothing."

Clinton has a point that compared with her, Sanders hasn’t really felt the burn of negative ad blitzes from Republican groups. But her claim that he hasn’t had "a single ad ever run against him" is an exaggeration.  

Dem-on-Dem negative campaigning

Many of the attacks we found on Sanders in the Political TV Ad Archive actually come from other Democrats, including by Clinton supporters.  

Generation Forward, a pro-Martin O’Malley super PAC, went after Sanders while O’Malley was still in the race. In an attack ad, the group highlighted Sanders’ and Clinton’s Saturday Night Live portrayals and less-than-serious moments on the campaign trail (i.e. dancing). It ended with O’Malley saying a presidency shouldn’t be about entertainment.

Another ad attacked Sanders for his record on guns: "Bernie Sanders voted against the Brady Bill — background checks and waiting periods. ... Bernie Sanders is no progressive when it comes to guns." (We rated the claim about background checks Mostly True.)

The Sanders campaign referred us to web videos by Correct the Record, a super PAC hybrid known as a Carey committee that supports Clinton. The group’s YouTube channel includes at least 13 negative videos about Sanders. (Correct the Record said that its videos are not ads as it does not "do any paid public communications.")

One focuses on Sanders’ controversial interview with the New York Daily News and is entitled "Bernie Sanders’ Sandy Hook Shame." Another asks, "Will Bernie Sanders explain why he’s sided with the gun lobby time and time again?" (This charge is largely inaccurate.) Others focus on Sanders’ "going negative" against Clinton and his record with fact-checkers.

The Clinton campaign itself sent a President's Day-themed attack ad against Sanders through text messages, BuzzFeed reported. After audio of Sanders saying it would be a good idea if President Barack Obama "faced primary opposition" in 2012, the text reads, "Hillary is the only one in this race who’ll fight for the progress we’ve made under Pres. Obama."

Largely, but not totally spared by Republicans

Clinton, who has been a national figure and subject of GOP criticism for decades, is right that she’s faced far more negative campaigning than Sanders has.

The Political TV Ad Archive includes some 120 ads either attacking Clinton directly or drawing unfavorable parallels between her and Republican candidates. Besides virtually all of the 2016 contenders on the GOP side, Clinton’s been consistently hit by  conservative super PACs, the Republican National Committee and even some down-ballot GOP candidates.

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Sanders, on the other hand, has been largely spared by the Republican attack machine this cycle, and Clinton’s campaign sent us several articles to that point. Given that the ads would write themselves ("And everyone knows what that pummeling would focus on: He's a self-proclaimed socialist," writes Mother Jones’ David Corn), why are Republicans leaving Sanders alone?

The answer seems to be that they don’t really see him as a threat.

"Sanders has an important message that is resonating with many. But that is not enough to win the nomination. Why spend money that will have little return on the investment?" said John G. Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University who wrote In Defense of Negativity: Attack Advertising in Presidential Campaign and spoke with us in April.

In one case, a "faux attack" from a conservative super PAC appears to actually bolster Sanders, illustrating another line of argument: Republicans may prefer to run against the more radical Sanders in a general election.  

Though Sanders hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as Clinton, he has been attacked by the right a few times. Future 45, a conservative Super PAC funded by backers of Marco Rubio, ran a 30-second spot sounding the alarms on higher taxes to come under Sanders.

Sanders is also featured in Republican-on-Republican attack ads as an unfavorable comparison.

For example, the anti-Trump Club for Growth has highlighted similarities between Trump’s positions and Sanders’ (as well as Clinton’s and Obama’s). Similarly, American Future Fund, a conservative 501(c)(4) or "dark money" group, ran an attack ad against Ted Cruz by lumping him in with Sanders and other Democrats on national security issues.

Mike Huckabee’s campaign, meanwhile, warned voters about "a crazy old man named Bernie" in a rhyming Christmas-themed ad and crooned "Hello from the caucus night. If Bernie wins, I’m going to die" in an Adele-inspired attack.

We should also note 2016 is not the 74-year-old’s first time around the block. He has, after all, competed in political races since the 1970s.

Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs pointed to "blistering negative ads in his first Senate campaign." In 2006, Sanders’ Republican opponent Richard Tarrant spent millions on ads accusing Sanders of wanting to protect child molesters and voting against single-working mothers. They didn’t end up doing much for Tarrant, who lost to Sanders by 33 percentage points.

Our ruling

Clinton said, "Let me say that I don't think (Sanders has) had a single negative ad ever run against him." 

The number of attack ads against Sanders pales in comparison to the number against Clinton, but she’s wrong that he’s been completely spared.

Democratic groups, including one supporting Clinton, and Republican outfits alike have gone after Sanders.

We rate her claim False.

Update, May 23, 2016: This report has been updated to include a response we received from Correct the Record after initial publication.

Our Sources

NBC, Meet the Press, May 22, 2016

Political TV Ad Archive searches

YouTube, Correct the Record, accessed May 22, 2016

Buzzfeed, "Clinton Accuses Sanders Of Disloyalty To Obama," Feb. 15, 2016

TIME, "The Problem With Bernie Sanders’ Polling Argument," April 23, 2016

Slate, "This Is What a Republican Attack on Bernie Sanders Would Look Like," May 2, 2016

MSNBC, "Sanders, Clinton make the same pitch on electability," Jan. 12, 2016

The Atlantic, "Why Is Bernie Sanders Overtaking Hillary?," Jan. 13, 2016

Politico, "Sanders attacked by super PAC funded by Republican billionaires," Feb. 18, 2016

PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton's absurd claim that she's the only candidate being attacked by Wall Street," April 3, 2016

PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton: Bernie Sanders 'has been largely a very reliable supporter of the NRA'," April 14, 2016

PolitiFact, "Did Bernie Sanders vote against background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases?" July 10, 2015

YouTube, ""What's happened to Bernie?" March 9, 2016

NPR, "Heated Vermont Senate Race Blankets Airwaves," Sept. 25, 2006

Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Hillary Clinton, May 22, 2016

Email interviews with Michael Briggs and Mike Casca, spokesmen for Bernie Sanders, May 22, 2016

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Hillary Clinton wrong that no negative ads have hit Bernie Sanders

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