How Politifact Got it Wrong

While I was out on vacation, Politifact Rhode Island - operated by the Providence Journal - rated as "mostly true" Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's argument that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision had unleashed a torrent of negative advertising from anonymous donors.

But Politifact took a narrow view of the claim, overlooking a strong argument to be made against it.

The Whitehouse quote at the center of the piece: "An April study found that about 70 percent of ads in this election cycle have been negative [due to Super PACs], up from only 9 percent through the same period in 2008." (The "due to Super PACs" parenthetical was added by Politifact)

Whitehouse, as Politifact notes, correctly quotes the study. There has been a big jump in negative advertising. So the statement is "true" on that count. But the real question here is causality. Is the big jump in negative advertising a direct outgrowth of Citizens United and the Super PACs it spawned?

Politifact says yes: Citizens United unleashed the Super PACs, which have paid for lots of negative advertising, ergo Citizens United led to a big jump in negative advertising.

But it's not that simple. As Matt Bai argued in a recent piece in the New York Times Magazine, the exponential growth in outside expenditures was happening before the Citizens United decision

The rise of the independent political expenditure can be traced back to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law of 2002, which clamped down on big, "soft money" contributions to the political parties. Unable to park their money with the parties themselves, big-money donors began spending it through outside groups. Remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the independent group that attacked John Kerry's war record in the 2004 race?

Sure, the sheer volume of outside cash in this cycle is remarkable; and perhaps the Citizens United decision encouraged some of this year's spending by removing any doubt about the legality of independent expenditures. But again, the growth of independent spending - much of it on attack ads - was evident well before 2012. As Bai writes:

The level of outside money increased 164 percent from 2004 to 2008. Then it rose 135 percent from 2008 to 2012. In other words, while the sheer amount of dollars seems considerably more ominous after Citizens United, the percentage of change from one presidential election to the next has remained pretty consistent since the passage of McCain-Feingold. And this suggests that the rising amount of outside money was probably bound to reach ever more staggering levels with or without Citizens United.

So, was Senator Whitehouse's statement "mostly true?" Politifact should, at least, re-assess its judgment.




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