Truth often elusive in race for Ohio's governor

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, left, and Republican challenger John Kasich were all smiles before their debate Sept. 14, but each has taken whacks at the other during the campaign.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, left, and Republican challenger John Kasich were all smiles before their debate Sept. 14, but each has taken whacks at the other during the campaign.

PolitiFact Ohio was primed for this fall"s hard-fought governor"s race, ready to examine the candidates" statements on how they would lead the state out of economic hard times and deal with a multibillion-dollar budget hole.

But the two leading candidates, Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and Republican challenger John Kasich, haven"t come through with those details. They have, however, spent lots of time bashing each other.

And when the candidates did focus on the positive and tout their own records, truth didn"t necessarily rule the day.

Since its launch at the end of July, PolitiFact Ohio has looked at 16 claims by the two gubernatorial candidates or their surrogates. Those include statements from news conferences, from campaign forums and in television and Internet ads.

When PolitiFact Ohio put these claims through its Truth-O-Meter, it gave ratings ranging from True and Mostly True to Half True, False and even Pants on Fire. The candidates" averages: Barely True for Strickland and between Barely True and Half True for Kasich.

PolitiFact Ohio also judged whether Kasich had changed his position on eliminating the state income tax and awarded him a Half Flip, given that he no longer would discuss his bold statement that it should be repealed, a remark he made when he announced his candidacy.

Meanwhile, when PolitiFact Ohio looked for candidate statements about what they would do if elected, it found very few of their ads had specific details that could be put through the Truth-O-Meter.

That"s shouldn"t be surprising, said former Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett, given how competitive a state Ohio is and that it is narrowly divided philosophically.

"Neither candidate wants to lay his plans out there and have that whacked at," Bennett said.

And given that tight level of competition and that the economy is the key issue, it"s no surprise that the election is feisty right down to the wire, he says. Republicans see they have a chance to gain power. Democrats are trying to fend them off amid an anti-incumbent mood.

"When you have this kind of economic situation, it makes it difficult for the incumbent," Bennett said. "If the Republicans were in power right now, I"d probably tell them to pack their bags."

Most of the statements PolitiFact Ohio evaluated shared one characteristic, whether they were touting the candidate or attacking the opponent: In nearly all there was some small element of truth.

That"s standard fare for negative election ads, said Jeff Peake, chairman of the political science department at Bowling Green State University.

"Generally when campaigns go negative, there is a kernel of truth," he said. "They can"t just go out and make things up." found that same trend at a national level, prompting PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair to rate the 2010 campaign as Barely True.

"In a majority of claims checked this fall by PolitiFact and our eight state partners, we found a grain of truth, but it was exaggerated, twisted or distorted," Adair wrote.

So there was a kernel of truth to John Kasich"s statement to a candidate forum that Ohio "didn"t have a development director for over seven months" while the state"s economy struggled. Kasich didn"t mention an interim director was in place during that time. PolitiFact Ohio ultimately rated the claim as false.

And there was an element of truth in Strickland"s ad saying "Kasich"s trade deals cost Ohio thousands of jobs ...  to Mexico ... to China." The ad didn"t mention that Kasich was one of many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who supported the trade legislation. PolitiFact Ohio ultimately rated the claim as false.

So where does all this end?

Television advertising, positive or negative, does little to sway the partisan crowd from the left or the right, said Melissa Miller, an assistant political science professor at Bowling Green. That means that the campaign ads, whether they be statements that target the opponent or tout the candidate, are hoping to sway the swing voters in the undecided margin.

And given that polls still show the governor"s race is tight, and in some cases too close to call, expect both sides to continue their claims right up to the close of the polls Tuesday.