The Difference Between Accuracy and Fairness In Campaign Ads

Before we get to today's campaign nastiness, a word about that creature known as "opposition research." Most people who are familiar with the term probably think it means something like "digging up dirt" on your opponent, which must involve things like going through the transcripts of his divorce to read about that time his wife came home early to find him doing unspeakable things with a roll of cling wrap, or rooting through his garbage to read his credit card bills. Every once in a while it can, but oppo researchers' biggest job is usually going through every vote the client's opponent ever took to see what sort of hay can be made out of them. Since bills are often complex—particularly budget bills that can have hundreds and hundreds of items in them—it's usually possible to say, "Our opponent voted for this horrible thing," or alternatively, "Our opponent voted against this wonderful thing," whether or not that was the intention of his vote.

Even on bills whose provisions are less complex, if you want to you can spin out some implications of a vote to make it seem as though your opponent is indifferent to the horrifying consequences of his actions. The opposition researcher hands off this information to the direct mail and media consultants, who take something like the fact that a congressman voted against HR 307, a bill "To reauthorize certain programs under the Public Health Service Act and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to public health security and all-hazards preparedness and response, and for other purposes," and turn it into the much punchier Our opponent doesn't care if your children get Ebola!

That's what Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, is saying with this new ad:

So how problematic is this?'s complicated. The facts seem to be in order—Republican Tom Cotton was one of the few members of Congress to vote against that bill, and he does support tax breaks that benefit those with upper incomes. He's your basic Tea Partier, who doesn't like spending or taxes. Pryor would argue that when you oppose almost every bill that spends money just because you don't like spending, you're opposing some very necessary things that government does, like disaster preparedness.

On the other hand, the chances of an Ebola outbreak in Arkansas are close to zero, and the scary montage at the beginning is meant to convince you otherwise. The point of the ad is to generate fear and contempt toward Cotton, which of course is what most negative ads are about, albeit usually less dramatically.

And this is one shortcoming of generally worthy efforts like PolitiFact and, something I saw both in political consulting and as an academic studying political advertising. When the people working for the candidate are putting these kinds of attacks together, the question they ask is, "Is it accurate?" They want to know whether the claims they're making are defensible, and if they can respond, "This is factually accurate" when the ad gets criticized. They don't ask, "Is this fair?", because they don't care whether they're being fair to the guy they're trying to destroy.

In fact, one of the things we found in the research I did with a number of colleagues back in the day was that negative ads tended to have fewer factual inaccuracies than positive ads, probably because the campaigns knew the negative ones were going to get more scrutiny, and thus they spent more time making sure each specific claim was accurate. But if you wrap up a bunch of facts with a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) implication that your opponent wouldn't give a crap if every child in the state died a horrific death from a terrifying plague, you haven't actually made an inaccurate factual claim, and it's all good.

That's why so many attack ads are like this one—factually accurate, but not completely fair. So what can we as a democracy do about it? Not a damn thing.

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