Election Research | Though Americans claim to place little stock in campaign commercials, Penns National Annenberg Election Survey shows just how influential they areeven when they bend the truth about a presidential candidates 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.Orgwhich, like the election survey, is a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Centernone of these statements are true. For example, the current jobs deficit is now under two million. In the case of Kerrys 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 cant show is whether a particular person believes this entirely because theyve seen it on the ads five times, or partly because of that and partly because theyve 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 televisionoften around the local news programs, [and] people arent distinguishing between news and ads. Under the law [stations] cant refuse ads if they think theyre untrue. But there is nothing in the law to prevent them from editorializing on them or running a news report saying, Its 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 theyre 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 whats 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 dont release is the Whos 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 weve got a lot of interesting stuff the horse-race polls tend to ignore.
But Clymer says he doesnt 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 whos going to win. I reject the elitist approach that says, Tell us, but dont tell the public.
For those who cant 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 websites director, devised a predictor known as the Pollyvote, based on an average of multiple poll results and forecasting models.S.F.
2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette