Politically Incorrect—Lying Ads, Trusting Voters

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Election Research | Though Americans claim to place little stock in campaign commercials, Penn’s National Annenberg Election Survey shows just how influential they are—even when they bend the truth about a presidential candidate’s opponent.

Less than one-fifth of respondents surveyed in 18 closely contested states between April 15 and May 2 said they learned anything from the ads, but a majority believed three false or misleading statements found in commercials aired in their states:

• Sixty-one percent believed President Bush “favors sending American jobs overseas.”

• Fifty-six percent believe Senator John Kerry “voted for higher taxes 350 times.”

• Seventy-two percent believed that three million jobs have been lost since Bush took office.

In addition, 46 percent believed that Kerry wants to raise gasoline taxes by 50 cents a gallon; 34 percent believed that Kerry wants to raise taxes by $900 billion; and 43 percent believed that Bush “raided Social Security to pay for tax cuts for millionaires.”

According to FactCheck.Org—which, like the election survey, is a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center—none of these statements are true. For example, the current jobs deficit is now under two million. In the case of Kerry’s tax record, the Bush ad tally included times when the Democratic senator voted to maintain existing tax levels or supported lower cuts than Republicans preferred.

“Lies work better if they have some context,” notes Adam Clymer, political director of the election survey. 

One thing the survey can’t show is “whether a particular person believes this entirely because they’ve seen it on the ads five times, or partly because of that and partly because they’ve heard it around the water cooler, or partly because of a news story where a Democrat or Republic made a charge,” he says. “But certainly the most intense exposure to all of these [statements] is from the TV ads.” 

He adds, “There are occasional efforts like ours at fact-checking to keep them honest, but these things are shown basically on local television—often around the local news programs, [and] people aren’t distinguishing between news and ads. Under the law [stations] can’t refuse ads if they think they’re untrue. But there is nothing in the law to prevent them from editorializing on them or running a news report saying, ‘It’s bunk.’”

So if both major-party candidates produce ads with misinformation, do they just cancel each other out? “I think they do something else more harmful,” Clymer says. “I think since they’re so profoundly negative that they increase cynicism in the public about the political process, decrease interest in it, and decrease voting. If you think both candidates are liars … you are likely to be less interested in what’s going on.” 

Working against that apathy, the National Annenberg Election Survey 2004 conducts daily interviews to glean voters’ attitudes on a variety of issues and measure the effects of different kinds of political communication.

“One of the things we don’t release is the ‘Who’s ahead?’ number: ‘If the election were held today, would you vote for Bush or Nader or Kerry?’ There are a lot of sources for that information, and, if we reported that, it would be about all anybody would pay attention to from us. We think we’ve got a lot of interesting stuff the horse-race polls tend to ignore.”

But Clymer says he doesn’t think such polls are harmful. “When I was in charge of polling for The New York Times, I was frequently confronted by academics who denounced news polls for being too focused on the horse race. But they still wanted to know what the horse-race poll showed. One of the most interesting questions about the election is who’s going to win. I reject the elitist approach that says, ‘Tell us, but don’t tell the public.’”

More election survey results are available at www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org. For a factual assessment of political ads, see www.factcheck.org.

For those who can’t get enough of the horse race,www.politicalforecasting.com is a website that continually tracks major, national public-opinion polls to predict the next president. J. Scott Armstrong, a Wharton marketing professor who is a member of the Political Forecasting Special Interest Group and the website’s director, devised a predictor known as the Pollyvote, based on an average of multiple poll results and forecasting models.—S.F.

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