This is the time of year when many of us begin to dread the commercial breaks in our favorite TV shows. We know that we're going to hear tense, horror-movie soundtrack music. We'll see a grainy, unflattering black-and-white photo of some candidate. The photo will be emblazoned with headlines condemning the candidate's record of shameful failures or conscience-shocking offense. Sometimes the ad has been authorized by the candidate's opponent; often, though, it turns out to have been paid for by an organization you've never heard of.
We see so many attack ads because, the conventional political wisdom holds, damaging an opponent's reputation is an effective way to boost a candidate (and perhaps distract from his or her own deficiencies). According to the strategy, whoever attacks early and most often ends up with a decided advantage. A recently published study found that attack ads do seem to work, particularly if they attack a candidate's integrity rather than just policies.
Additionally, political consultants don't have to worry all that much about whether there's really evidence to back the allegations in the ads, because they now use brain waves, galvanic skin response, and other neuroscience tools to figure out which ads will push voters' emotional buttons. Besides, as one study shows, local TV stations seldom evaluate political ads for truthfulness before they run them.
In statewide elections, TV ads that appear to be from grass-roots citizens groups taking a stand on a ballot initiative often turn out to be bankrolled by industry groups with a vested interest in the outcome. (In Maryland, for example, rival casino companies have spent $26.7 million running such ads for and against a referendum on expanding gambling.)
If all of that makes you feel more like a helpless lab rat than an informed voter, don't despair. Here are some tools to help you make sense of the claims in political ads, and to know when you're being conned - and by whom.
1. Knowing who actually paid for and produced the ad helps you to put the claims in context.
- In presidential and congressional races, one of the best ways to cut through the bull is the Super PAC App for the iPhone, which not only provides background information on the organizations behind the ads but also links to articles vetting their claims as well. (The app also does the same for ads by the candidates.)
- If you don't have an iPhone, Newsweek and the Daily Beast website are offering a Daily Election Ad Tracker based on the same information.
- OpenSecrets.org, the website of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, allows you to search for a brief dossier on the organization in question, including whatever information is available about its backers and pattern of spending.
2. It pays to investigate the actual claims made in the ad, regardless of whether the ad is from a political candidate or an "independent" group. You can use nonpartisan websites that investigate their verity. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and PolitiFact, a website operated by the Tampa Bay Times, continually point out errors and debunk distortions. Other prominent arbiters of fact include the Washington Post's Fact Checker blog and the New York Times' The Caucus blog. -Patrick J. Kiger