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Negative ads everywhere, nowhere

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A lot of the nastiest, harshest ads are released to the press but aren't airing that much on regular television.

From dirty campaign connections to dirty energy, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama daily announce new, harsh, usually negative ads and Web videos, which dutifully get airtime on cable news networks and grab ink in newspapers. However, regular voters - those outside the few million political junkies - are getting a completely different diet of ads.

"That stuff is getting very little airtime," said Evan Tracey, founder of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ad spending. Mr. Tracey said many of the ads that are getting attention on cable news amount to little more than "video press releases" designed to keep their candidates in the news cycle.

"A lot of these things are clearly being fed in to have the candidates' unfiltered take on the news of the day so they can be churned through these content machines," he said.

Meanwhile, most of the ads the campaigns are buying are far less acerbic and focus on two or three basic messages. For instance, Mr. Tracey said, Mr. McCain's most prominent single ad in the early part of September was a positive spot touting himself and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, as mavericks, while Mr. Obama's most prominent ad linked Mr. McCain to President Bush.

What it signifies is that campaigns have learned how to play the system. They know the more outrageous a claim, the more likely it is to earn free airtime on newscasts and coverage in newspapers. Or, as Mr. Tracey puts it, "There's this food-fight media out there, and the ads are the tomatoes."

During the Democratic National Convention, the McCain campaign announced a new ad every morning, and though it didn't put much advertising muscle behind them, the ads got plenty of airtime because of saturation coverage of the conventions.

The deceptive campaign claims aren't limited to ads, though the commercials are among the most egregious.

Take immigration, an issue on which Mr. McCain, of Arizona, led the push for an overhaul, and which Mr. Obama, of Illinois, clearly supported. In Spanish-language ads, the candidates accuse each other of having struck nefarious alliances with opponents to try to attack immigrants or scuttle the bill for which both voted.

In their English ads, the campaigns are just as loose with the facts - so much so that four of Mr. McCain's ads in the past three months have earned a "pants-on-fire" rating from PolitiFact.com, as has one of Mr. Obama's. Another three McCain ads have earned the slightly less damning "false," and seven were labeled "barely true," compared to two of Mr. Obama's earning "barely true."

The explosion in coverage has been accompanied by a jump in the number of self-appointed fact-checkers.

In addition to PolitiFact.com, a joint project of Congressional Quarterly and Florida's St. Petersburg Times, and FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, news organizations and even bloggers have set up their own ad-checking systems. Associated Press runs regular "AdWatch" stories, while The Washington Post's Fact Checker doles out "Pinocchio" based on how deceiving it assesses an ad to be.

Among the most egregious ads this year, judging by the outrage from the self-appointed fact-checkers, is Mr. McCain's ad "Education."

The ad accuses Mr. Obama of being in favor of "learning about sex before learning to read" because he supported a bill that extended age-appropriate sex education to all levels of Illinois schooling, including kindergarten. The ad also combines criticism of Mr. Obama's education record from Education Week and several daily newspapers.

PolitiFact.com rated the kindergarten claim in the ad "pants-on-fire" wrong, and called the Education Week quote "barely true" because it was taken out of context. FactCheck.org called the ad "a factual failure," while other columnists and commentators said it was worse than the 1988 Willie Horton ad.

The ad is not without its defenders, however. Byron York of National Review reviewed the bill in question and talked with sponsors and concluded that Mr. Obama deserves to be challenged on the education bill because it would, in fact, have required kindergartners to learn about avoiding sexual abuse.

The sole Obama ad to earn "pants-on-fire" was his immigration attack, the Spanish-language ad that accused Mr. McCain of siding with talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, an opponent of the immigration bill. The ad also used quotes out of context to suggest Mr. Limbaugh was insulting immigrants.

John Geer, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies negative ads, said fact-checking is difficult, and much depends on what facts the checker brings. Mr. Geer pointed to ads in 2004 about the economy and said one could conclude from job numbers that the economy was poor but would conclude from gross domestic product that the economy was booming.

"The problem I have with the fact-checkers is it's the negative ads that have the facts in them, and they end up only talking about the negative ads. And then, what's a fact?" he said.

Mr. Geer said it's not clear this year is the most negative in tone. He pointed to harsh ads in the 1964 campaign and to still harsher charges tossed about in the 1948 campaign as potentially tougher.

"My sense is that what surprises me about this year is there doesn't seem to be as many positive ads," he said. "Whether or not they're nastier, that is unclear."

He said the press attention to negativity could be a reaction of pundits and reporters looking for an explanation why, with so much of a political tail wind, Mr. Obama does not have a larger lead.

"I'm wondering if in fact some of the reactions are 'Obama should be up by more, based on all the fundamentals, and he's not,'" Mr. Geer said. "If Obama was up by 10 points in the polls, would people be worrying about this as much?"

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