A record year for political advertising has brought with it a hail of televised exaggerations, omissions and mischaracterizations that pollsters say seem to be leaving voters with mistaken impressions of Senator John Kerry and President Bush.
The degree to which the advertisements push the facts, or go beyond them, varies by commercial. While Mr. Bush's campaign has been singled out as going particularly far with some of its claims, Mr. Kerry's campaign has also been criticized as frequently going beyond the bounds of truth.
In three of its advertisements, Mr. Bush's campaign has said Mr. Kerry would raise taxes by at least $900 billion in his first 100 days in office. Mr. Kerry has no such plan.
In an advertisement for Mr. Kerry, an announcer said, "George Bush says sending jobs overseas makes sense for America." Mr. Bush never said that. A report to Congress by his top economic adviser said cheaper production of goods overseas had long-term benefits but did not make the plain case that domestic job losses were a good thing.
Outside groups are getting into the act as well.
The League of Conservation Voters, which has endorsed Mr. Kerry, is running an advertisement in Florida warning that "President Bush opened up Florida's coast to offshore drilling." But the drilling area that was opened under Mr. Bush is 100 miles off the coast, much farther than it would have been under a Clinton administration proposal.
Of course, it is a time-tested practice to make one's opponent look as bad as possible in a political campaign, whether the race is for town council or the presidency of the United States. And the campaigns and outside groups say they are under no obligation to present defenses for their opponents in their own advertisements, all of which are at least tenuously based in fact.
But this campaign season, with total advertising spending at roughly $150 million since early last summer, the number of distortions and omissions is worrying some good-government groups, which say they fear that the big money behind the claims is leaving indelible impressions.
"Even people who don't think there is much information in these ads and say they don't learn anything from them tell us they believe factoids they could only have gotten from these ads, and they're wrong," said Brooks Jackson, director of Factcheck.org, an Annenberg Public Policy Center Web site that vets political advertisements for accuracy. "It's beyond subliminal — it's something else I haven't come up with a name for."
This month the Annenberg Center, at the University of Pennsylvania, released a poll of voters in battleground states that found many believed misleading statements made in the advertisements.
In a survey conducted from April 15 to May 2, 61 percent of the 1,026 voters questioned in the 18 swing states where most of the advertising has run said they believed Mr. Bush favored sending jobs overseas. And 72 percent said they believed that three million jobs had been lost during Mr. Bush's presidency. Mr. Kerry made that claim in a spot in late February, when the most commonly used Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed the actual net job loss to be closer to 2.3 million, down from 2.7 million in late summer. That number is now less than 1.6 million. (Mr. Kerry's figures did not include government jobs.)
In the same survey, 46 percent of those questioned said they believed Mr. Kerry "wants to raise gasoline taxes by 50 cents a gallon." Three spots for Mr. Bush have said that Mr. Kerry supported a 50-cent-a-gallon tax hike on gasoline, an assertion based from comments Mr. Kerry that appeared in two newspapers 10 years ago regarding a position he never acted on and has long since abandoned.
More than half of those surveyed also said they believed Mr. Kerry had "voted for higher taxes 350 times." That idea, Annenberg researchers concluded, is based on a commercial for Mr. Bush in which an announcer said, "Kerry supported higher taxes over 350 times." While Bush campaign aides say the contention is accurate and have made public a list of instances to which it refers, they acknowledge that in several of these cases Mr. Kerry had in fact either voted to maintain tax rates or even to cut them, but not by as much as Republicans had proposed.
"Each of these votes amounted to higher taxes than an alternative," said Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign. "We expect that voters will reach the obvious conclusion that John Kerry will increase your taxes or will oppose efforts to cut taxes."
Asked why the spot did not simply say that Mr. Kerry has consistently voted for higher taxes than Republicans have proposed, which even the Kerry campaign would not dispute, Mr. Holt said, "We said `supported higher taxes,' as provably true and totally accurate."
Several other commercials this year have been criticized for pushing past the facts when they could have indisputably conveyed similar points with less sensational-sounding claims.
For instance, one of Mr. Kerry's new commercials boasts that he provided "a decisive vote" for President Bill Clinton's 1993 economic plan, which, it maintains, "created 20 million new jobs." The bill passed by a single vote in the Senate, giving anybody who voted for it a claim to have provided a decisive vote. But at the time, it was the last-minute support of Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska, that was considered decisive. And even economists who credit the plan with playing a significant role in the 1990's boom say Mr. Kerry's spot goes too far.
"To say that any one economic package was responsible for all of the stuff going on in the 90's is kind of ridiculous," said L. Douglas Lee, president of Economics From Washington, an economic policy analysis firm. Still, Mr. Lee said, the 1993 package was an important factor in the boom.
Asked why the spot did not simply say Mr. Kerry voted for a package credited with helping to set the conditions for the boom, Michael Meehan, a Kerry spokesman, said: "That's why we have elections. People get to decide. We said it created 20 million jobs. If people don't believe that, they should vote for someone else."
Aides on both sides said privately that it was hard to fit all the nuance of complex policies into a vehicle designed to convey thoughts no more complex than "Tastes Great, Less Filling."
"There's only so much you can do in a 30-second ad," said an aide to Mr. Kerry, making a point that was echoed by a senior strategist for the Bush campaign.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, does not accept that. "When they could make the 30-second ad accurate and they don't, you've got to believe that they're intentionally misleading you," she said.
Kenneth M. Goldstein, an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said it was to be expected that the campaigns would take liberties, and that with both Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush flush with cash, there was plenty of time for them to answer each other's claims.
"Politics is about putting your best foot forward and putting the other person in the worst light," Mr. Goldstein said. "Do we expect someone who's advertising to say, `You know, I really don't want to put this person's record in the worst light because that's not fair'?"
In the end, Mr. Jackson of Factcheck.org said, all that can be done is to continue to vet commercials for accuracy and try to set the record straight as publicly as possible. That, he said, is an occasionally thankless task:
"I've had consultants tell me, `Your ad watch runs once, my ad runs many times; who's going to win?' "
Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times. May 25, 2004.
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