WASHINGTON -- Cut through the din of this presidential campaign and you will find something new this year besides the usual record spending: candidate ads divorced from facts, and a platoon of fact checkers trying to keep up.
Veteran campaign watchers say they have never seen ads quite like some from Republican John McCain. The spots contend that Democrat Barack Obama caused high gasoline prices, called McCain running mate Sarah Palin a pig, plans to raise taxes on the middle class and — in an ad called Education that's emblematic of the trend — wants to teach graphic sex to kindergartners. All the claims are false.
Education "is a terribly misleading ad, designed to deceive voters," says Brooks Jackson, director of the non-partisan Factcheck.org.
Obama, of course, is running plenty of his own negative ads. In a reversal of earlier weeks, the Wisconsin Advertising Project says he aired more of them than McCain in the week following the GOP convention, 77%-56%.
Some of Obama's assertions have drawn censure, such as that McCain favors a 100-year war in Iraq (McCain was talking about a peacetime presence) or has plans that would halve Social Security benefits ("a gross distortion," The Washington Post said Monday).
So far, several analysts say, most of Obama's ads mislead and misrepresent in familiar ways — twisting a statistic or a snippet of video to make a questionable point, for instance. They say McCain has been in a different league, epitomized by Education.
"McCain is making no effort to be truthful," says Farhad Manjoo, author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. "The lies aren't routine political lies where they stretch the truth of what a candidate might have said, or take a candidate out of context."
PolitiFact.com, a fact-check team from the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and Congressional Quarterly, rates 22 statements and ads from McCain as barely true, 23 as false and six as "pants on fire" (absurdly, ridiculously false) out of 117 analyzed. For Obama, the score is 14 barely true, 18 false and one "pants on fire" out of 120 analyzed.
Anatomy of an ad
Education is the ad that has come to crystallize the difference between 2008 and earlier years.
McCain's campaign says the spot was a response to What Kind?— a Sept. 9 Obama ad that said: "John McCain voted to cut education funding, against accountability standards. He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education. And John McCain's economic plan gives $200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools."
Education Week's Alyson Klein called What Kind? misleading on accountability and arguably fair on school funds.
But McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds says the funding charge was offensive and unsupported. He says he tracked it to a National Education Association study "based on our proposals to freeze discretionary spending, ignoring the fact that John McCain had pledged to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act. It was a blatant falsehood. It was a lie."
McCain struck back later that day with Education. It proved to be a tipping point. Reporters, columnists, editorial writers and watchdog groups produced fact checks pronouncing it beyond the pale even by the elastic standards of political advertising.
"It was a remarkable ad because it was wrong in so many ways," says PolitiFact.com editor Bill Adair. Its rating was a mix of "barely true" and "pants on fire."
The script: "Education Week says Obama 'hasn't made a significant mark on education.' That he's 'elusive' on accountability. A 'staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.' Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family."
Only the first quote is from Education Week. It's accurate, but the paper also praised Obama's work on teacher quality and early childhood education and said McCain didn't have much of an education record either.
Furthermore, Obama did not sponsor or co-sponsor the 2003 bill, and it was never enacted.
Bounds declined to discuss the ad or make the McCain ad team available. GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos, who did not make the ad but is familiar with it, says the bill lowered the age for sexual education from sixth-grade to kindergarten. "McCain was right about sex ed before learning to read. That was true. Obama voted for sex ed" in kindergarten, he says.
But did Obama vote for "comprehensive sex education" in kindergarten? The bill repeatedly said instruction should be age-appropriate, with parents able to pull their kids out if desired.
The sponsor of the bill, retired state senator Carol Ronen, did not return a call for comment.
Pam Sutherland, a legislative expert at the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, says proponents made clear in hearings that age-appropriate for grades K-3 meant teaching kids about bad touching, so they could protect themselves against predators. "That's what is generally taught" at that age, she says. That's also how Obama described the bill in 2004.
On ABC's The View, Joy Behar said to McCain, "We know these ads are lies. But you say 'I approve these messages.' Do you really approve them?"
"Actually, they are not lies," McCain responded.
For all the ruckus, Education ran only 36 times in smaller markets, mostly on one day — Sept. 10. Total outlay by the McCain campaign: Slightly more than $30,000, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
In that, it was typical of many ads this year — Web-only or barely run. CMAG ad tracker Evan Tracey calls such ads "tomatoes for food-fight TV" and the blogosphere. Like Education, he says, an Obama ad depicting McCain as a relic who doesn't use e-mail "almost never aired."
A bad year for accuracy
Darrell West, author of Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns,says 2008 is shaping up as "much worse in terms of factual inaccuracy" than the heavily negative years of 1964 and 1988.
That's even including the provocative Willie Horton ad an independent conservative group ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis 20 years ago. "There was a case of this convicted felon who, while out on furlough, did terrible deeds," West says. "Although the ad was racially tinged, it was factually accurate."
This year he says "McCain has been a much worse violator of the facts than Obama has been. There are statements that can be disproven that still are appearing … in paid advertisements."
McCain ads on Obama's tax plan are a case in point. Factcheck.org has scored McCain for "multiple false and misleading claims" about the plan, citing studies that show families making under $250,000 would fare better with Obama. The group says McCain is engaged in a months-long "pattern of misrepresentation," most recently with a new ad late last week.
McCain also has the distinction of misusing Factcheck itself in an ad. "Those attacks on Palin that we debunked didn't come from Obama," the group protested.
Obama is edging into McCain territory, Manjoo and others say, with a new Spanish-language ad that suggests McCain is hostile to immigrants, ties him to offensive remarks from Rush Limbaugh and quotes Limbaugh out of context to boot.
"There goes Barack Obama, down into the deceptive-campaign-ad gutter with John McCain," The New York Times editorialized Friday. The ad earned Obama his first "pants on fire" rating from PolitiFact.
Doug Bailey, a retired Republican admaker who founded the political tipsheet Hotline, says outside groups did the dirty work in past elections. "Now you have the candidates authorizing ads run by the campaigns themselves which are just blatantly false," he says. Fact checking is important, he says, but may not be able to compete with the ads.
Manjoo argues in his book that partisan blogs, websites and cable shows keep people in their comfort zones and make it easier for politicians to lie. "We'll see in this election whether fact checking or lying wins out," he says. "If McCain does well with these types of ads, it will give people license to do this in the future."