Guest column: False attack against Ron DeSantis shows how political attack ads are often crafted

In this May 24, 2016 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo)
In this May 24, 2016 file photo, House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo)

Editor's note: Jason Altmire is PolitiFact's Democratic guest columnist and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district from 2007-13. Read more about the guest columnist position here. See other critiques here.

A March 29 fact-check of an accusation about U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., was justifiably rated Pants on Fire by PolitiFact. The claim is ludicrous on its face, and the final determination was easy. However, the episode gives an excellent example of how political attack ads are crafted, and how little substance is often behind them. 

The issue at hand for PolitiFact was a false claim by an obscure right wing website that DeSantis had "voted in favor of food stamps for illegal immigrants." The website cited as its source another fringe right wing website, which had run an unsubstantiated article about DeSantis’ vote against the 2014 farm bill. So, one site posted a demonstrably false claim about a public official, thereby giving a second website the opportunity to use that information as a source in a political attack.

DeSantis is in the midst of a bitterly contested primary to win the Republican nomination for governor of Florida. He has positioned himself as the most conservative candidate in the field, which is appropriate given his ultra-conservative voting record during his three terms in the House. He is a frequent guest on Fox News, has been endorsed by President Donald Trump, and has won the support of some of the more politically extreme Republican Super PACs and campaign donors. Few would question DeSantis’ conservative credentials. 

In voting against the 2014 farm bill, DeSantis announced at the time that he believed the bill did not do enough to cut welfare programs, like food stamps. Because illegal immigrants are already prohibited from receiving food stamps, the bill did not change current law on that issue. 

The bill contained a minor provision referencing the food stamp program in the context of requiring states to use an immigration status verification system before determining an individual’s eligibility for food stamps. The implication of the attack against DeSantis is that by voting against the entire bill, which is sweeping in scope and runs hundreds of pages, DeSantis was also voting against the state verification mandate. He therefore "voted in favor of food stamps for illegal immigrants," even though no such vote in the affirmative had occurred. 

When questioned by PolitiFact about the claim against DeSantis, the Central Florida Post—the website that published the original accusation—referenced a report by the conservative and vehemently anti-illegal immigrant organization Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). The CIS report in question discussed a minor loophole in the calculation formula many states use to determine a family’s eligibility for food stamps in cases where some members of a family are legal U.S. residents and others are not. The issue was not addressed in the 2014 farm bill and in no way impacted DeSantis’ vote.

So, in summary, the attack implied that by voting against the massive farm bill, the congressman was somehow voting for benefits for illegal immigrants, which are already prohibited by law. The attack used as its source an obscure partisan website which, in turn, justifies its original attack on DeSantis by referencing a third website’s report on an issue only tangentially related to the accusation. All this despite the fact that the congressman has very clearly explained his reasons for voting against the bill.

Got it?

This mini-drama gives insight into the anatomy of a political attack ad: Misrepresentations of the facts, implied intent of the public official, questionable or outright bogus news sources, and a willingness to ignore the known facts about the issue. Without fact-checking sites like PolitiFact, it would be nearly impossible for the general public to determine the truth about such a convoluted claim. 

The attack against DeSantis is only one example, but hopefully it gives pause to voters considering the legitimacy of the negative political ads they will see this election season. Be aware that the truth is not always easy to decipher, which is why credible nonpartisan fact checking is so important.