Accountability

Published — February 16, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

FACT CHECK: Gunning down the truth in Michigan

Screen grab from Santorum for President ad, 'Rombo'

Introduction

With Rick Santorum polling well in Mitt Romney’s birth state, a high-stakes TV shootout has broken out in Michigan. But some shots are off the mark.

  • An amusing Santorum ad features a Romney look-alike machine-gunning mud at a cardboard cutout of Santorum. But the ad slings a little mud of its own, claiming Romney is hiding his “support for cap-and trade.” In fact, for years Romney has been a consistent opponent of any national cap-and-trade plan. Nearly a decade ago, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney flirted with the idea of a regional cap-and-trade system for the Northeast — but he ultimately rejected it.
  • An ad from pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future casts Santorum as a “big-spending Washington insider” and cites a statistic from the National Taxpayers Union to support that. But, in fact, the NTU awarded Santorum a grade of “A” for his voting record on fiscal issues that year — ranking him 5th best among all senators.

Another ad claims Santorum holds the coveted mantle of the “best chance to beat Obama.” We’re not in the odds-making business, so we can’t say whether Santorum is wrong or right. But he cites a single poll to support his claim. And that one is contradicted by a more recent poll from the same organization, as well as other recent polls.

In the 2008 Republican presidential campaign, Romney won a decisive victory in the primary in Michigan, the state where he was born and where his father once served as governor. But with recent polls now showing Santorum leading in the state, Michigan has the potential to be a game-changer. The Santorum campaign clearly senses the potential for a surprise victory, and it has unveiled several new ads in Michigan. Romney’s TV ads in the state so far have taken aim at President Barack Obama, but pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has left little doubt about who it thinks is Romney’s biggest threat: Santorum. Here’s what we’re seeing on air so far.

Rombo on the Loose

The Santorum campaign has unveiled one of the livelier ads of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign lampooning Romney as a mudslinger. It features a machine-gun toting Romney look-alike stalking a cardboard cutout of Santorum in a barren warehouse and firing mud.

The ad claims Romney’s mudslinging is intended to mask his own record, including “his support for job-killing cap-and-trade.”

Far from supporting a national cap-and-trade plan, Romney went on the attack in 2008 against fellow Republican Sen. John McCain, who had cosponsored a bipartisan bill in 2003 to cap carbon emissions. During a debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Romney said McCain’s cap-and-trade proposal “puts a burden, as much as 50 cents a gallon, on gasoline in this country.” We found Romney’s claim to be an exaggeration, and certainly not to be confused with support.

It’s true that earlier, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney was an early proponent of a regional cap-and-trade plan. National Review noted that Romney wrote then-New York Gov. George Pataki in July 2003 stating that a “regional cap and trade system could serve as an effective approach” for both states.

The Wall Street Journal later noted that Romney hired environmentalist Douglas Foy to negotiate a regional climate change plan with neighboring Northeast states, but that Romney ultimately rejected Foy’s plan for a regional cap-and-trade consortium, saying it was too burdensome on businesses.

In Pittsburgh, on Oct. 27, 2011, Romney was asked about cap-and-trade at an event at the Consol Energy Center, the city’s new hockey arena. His answer leaves little doubt about his position on a cap-and-trade plan now.

Romney, Oct. 27: “I do not believe in a cap-and-trade program. By the way, they don’t call it America warming, they call it global warming. So the idea of Americans spending massive amounts, trillions of dollars, to somehow stop global warming is not a great idea. It loses jobs for Americans and ultimately it won’t be successful because industries that are energy intensive will just get up and go somewhere else. So it doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The ad also claims Romney is “trying to hide from his big government Romneycare.” In the background, the ad flashes: “Romney Advisor Admits Romneycare is Blueprint for Obamacare. – RushLimbaugh.com.”

That was in fact a headline from the website of the conservative talk show host. Limbaugh’s comment was based on a statement by Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economic professor who was an adviser to both Romney and Obama in the formulation of the Massachusetts and national health care plans.

Gruber: The truth is that the Affordable Care Act is essentially based on what we accomplished in Massachusetts. It’s the same basic structure applied nationally. John McDonough, one of the other advisors who worked in both Massachusetts and advised the White House, said it’s the Massachusetts bill with three more zeros, and that’s basically a good description of what the federal bill did.

As we have written in-depth, there are a number of similarities between the state and national plans, and there are several differences. Both laws have an individual mandate, requiring persons to have insurance or pay a penalty; subsidies for low-income persons; an expansion of Medicaid; an exchange where individuals can buy insurance; and requirements for employers. But the national law puts a greater emphasis on small businesses by providing tax credits for those who want to offer insurance, and it includes many potential cost-control measures that Massachusetts lawmakers are only now tackling in separate legislation.

On the campaign trail, Romney has repeatedly said that he opposes the national health care law and would immediately seek to repeal it as president. However, in his attempts to highlight differences between the plans, we have found that he has made a number of misleading statements.

Pro-Romney Super PAC Attacks Santorum

The Romney campaign’s lone Michigan TV ad seeks to remind voters that Romney was born in Detroit and takes aim at Obama, not Santorum. But pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future’s attack ad makes clear who it thinks is the biggest threat to Romney’s nomination. The Restore our Future ad, called “Votes,” attacks Santorum for some of the votes he cast, and bills he cosponsored, during his 12 years in the Senate.

The ad casts Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider, noting that he voted to increase the debt limit five times, and that he voted “for billions in wasteful projects including the ‘Bridge To Nowhere.’ ” As we have noted before when the same issue was raised by then-candidate Rick Perry, Santorum did not sponsor or ask for the “Bridge to Nowhere” funding, but he did vote for a massive transportation spending bill that included it. And he voted against an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to specifically defund the Bridge to Nowhere (and another Alaska bridge) and redirect the funding to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridge that was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Santorum has requested earmarks, has voted for numerous bills that contained them, and has repeatedly defended the practice. However, the former Pennsylvania senator now says the practice of earmarks has been abused and should be suspended.

Despite his former affection for earmarks, Santorum wasn’t considered a “big spender” in the Senate, and the Restore Our Future ad strains the facts to support that claim. It says that in a single legislative session, he “cosponsored 51 bills to increase spending and zero to cut spending.” But those numbers are misleading.

Where do they come from? The ad cites a presidential white paper from the conservative Club for Growth, but the statistic actually originated with the conservative National Taxpayers Union’s analysis of the 108th Congress in 2003 and 2004. And what was the NTU’s bottom line? The NTU also rates senators based on their fiscal votes. And by that measure, Santorum was one of the most fiscally conservative senators during the 108th Congress. In both 2003 and 2004, the NTU gave Santorum an “A” grade, and ranked him as 5th and 7th best, respectively, in those years.

Worth mentioning is that had all of Santorum’s 51 bills passed (and many never came to a vote), they would have increased spending by about $28.7 billion. By the NTU’s measure, that makes Santorum a relatively small spender; NTU ranked Santorum 75th out of 100 senators on that scale.

The ad also claims, “Santorum even voted to raise his own pay.” Not exactly. The fine print directs viewers to three votes, which you can view here, here and here. In each case, Santorum voted against efforts to have senators forgo cost-of-living pay increases for the following year. The raises were tied to the cost-of-living increases all federal employees get. So Santorum voted not to deny a built-in raise.

Lastly, the ad says Santorum “joined Hillary Clinton to let convicted felons vote.” We first visited this issue when it was raised in a previous Restore Our Future ad. We concluded the ad was misleading, because it featured a background image of a man in an orange prison jumpsuit wearing an “I voted” sticker. That implied Santorum voted to allow felons to vote from prison, but the amendment Santorum voted for in 2002 would have allowed felons to register to vote only after they had successfully completed their probation and parole. Santorum was one of just three Republicans to vote for the amendment, which failed 63-31.

When Romney raised the issue at a debate in January, saying, “I don’t think people who have committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote again,” Santorum correctly pointed out that when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, it was one of 13 states to allow people with felony convictions to vote upon release from prison.

When Santorum asked Romney why he didn’t try to change that law when he was governor, Romney said it was “something we discussed” but that the Massachusetts Legislature at the time was 85 percent Democratic.

One other thing about the latest ad’s claim: While Hillary Clinton did also vote in favor of the amendment, the ad’s mention of her is mostly a name-check. Clinton did not sponsor or cosponsor the bill. The sponsor was Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. It had two cosponsors, Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (he didn’t become a Democrat until 2009).

Best Shot to Beat Obama?

With polls consistently showing that electability (translation: someone who can beat Obama) ranks as a high priority for Republican voters, an ad from the Santorum campaign, called “Very Very Best Chance,” makes the case that Santorum is the best bet.

While the narrator claims that Santorum has the best chance to beat Obama, the ad flashes this quote: “Among national voters, Rick Santorum runs slightly stronger against Obama than Romney — Rasmussen Reports Polling.”

That’s what Rasmussen reported on Feb. 10. But relying on that one poll to back up the claim that Santorum is the best Republican chance to beat Obama is a stretch.

First off, “slightly” is the operative word in the Rasmussen report. A rolling three-day average of national telephone polls conducted by Rasmussen Feb. 8-10 found that Obama would beat Santorum, 46 percent to 42 percent, while Obama would beat Romney 49 percent to 42 percent.

Moreover, that’s not what Rasmussen reported on the day the ad was released in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Then, the polls showed just the opposite, a razor-thin edge for Romney over Santorum, with Romney losing to Obama by 1 percentage point less than Santorum. In both cases, the slight edge for either is erased by the margin for error, which was plus or minus 3 percentage points. (But, despite leading Romney 55 to 34 in this poll of likely GOP voters, Santorum didn’t do so well on the “electability” front — those polled still thought Romney the stronger candidate against Obama, by 41 to 25.)

Pew Research Center also released a poll on Feb. 13 that showed Romney would fare a little better against Obama than Santorum would, with Romney trailing Obama in a head-to-head 52 percent to 44 percent, while Santorum trailed Obama 53 percent to 43 percent.

So what does that all mean? Not a whole lot, according to polling professionals — including Scott Rasmussen, founder of Rasmussen Reports.

“If Santorum could convince people that he’d be the most likely to beat President Obama, he’d be the Republican nominee,” Rasmussen told us in a telephone interview.

However, Romney has more consistently been the strongest Republican on that issue in polls, Rasmussen said. Depending on which polls they chose, “both Romney and Santorum can make the case that they are the more electable candidate.”

Romney hasn’t led Obama in a head-to-head poll since December, he said, and Santorum has led Obama just once, in early February. The front-runner is typically viewed as the best chance to unseat a sitting president, Rasmussen said. So while Romney is viewed by more people as more likely to beat Obama, that would likely change should Santorum become the front-runner.

Quoting Out of Context

Santorum is running another 30-second ad highlighting favorable statements others have made about him, including some from well-known conservatives and news publications. But in some instances, the quotes by themselves leave out important context.

For example, the ad quotes Sarah Palin saying that Santorum has been “consistent protecting the sanctity of life.” Yes, that’s what she told Sean Hannity of Fox News during an interview back in December. But Palin had complimentary things to say about all of the candidates in that interview, in which she noted that “all of these folks are going to be infinitely better than Barack Obama.” Palin hasn’t endorsed any candidate for president, but on more than one occasion, she has encouraged Republican voters to support Newt Gingrich in primaries and caucuses in order to extend the nomination process as long as possible.

The ad also uses a carefully edited quote from a Wall Street Journal editorial about Santorum’s economic plan. The Journal did write in January that, overall, taking the good and the bad, the editorial board would “score Mr. Santorum’s economic agenda as bolder than Mr. Romney’s.” But in the very same line, the editorial said that Santorum’s plan was not as ambitious as those of Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman, who endorsed Romney after dropping out of the race on Jan. 16.

The ad quotes Rush Limbaugh saying that “it would be great if [Santorum] could get to the White House.” The conservative radio show host made the statement at least once back in December. But Limbaugh wasn’t officially endorsing Santorum. Limbaugh said that he has made similar statements about the other GOP presidential contenders. “I also said it about Bachmann, and I said it about a number of other people who were not the top tier trying to point out that we had a lot of potential in this field,” Limbaugh said on his radio show on Jan. 3.

The ad also says that Time Magazine named Santorum one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. That’s true, but that list came out seven years ago, and the magazine hasn’t done another one since. Would Santorum, who is actually Catholic, make a similar list today? Maybe so and maybe not. Plus, a lot of his influence at the time had to do with him being a U.S. senator, which he no longer is. Time wrote that Santorum and his staff were in contact with evangelical leaders regularly, briefing them on legislation and pushing laws related to their common goals.

– by Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore

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Robertson, Lori. “Romney Off Base on Health Care.” FactCheck.org. 13 May 2011.

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Austin, Andrew D. and Levit, Mindy R. “The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases.” Congressional Research Service. 20 Jan 2012.

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Murray, Shailagh. “For a Senate Foe of Pork Barrel Spending, Two Bridges Too Far.” Washington Post. 21 Oct 2005.

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Farley, Robert, Robertson, Lori and Kiely, Eugene. “And Then There Were Five.” FactCheck.org. 17 Jan 2012.

U.S. Senate website. S.Amdt. 2879 to S. 565, To secure the Federal voting rights of certain qualified persons who have served their sentences. 14 Feb 2002.

Library of Congress. S.AMDT. 2879, To secure the Federal voting rights of certain qualified persons who have served their sentences. Proposed 14 Feb 2002.

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Burns, Alexander. “Palin: I’d vote for Gingrich in South Carolina.” Politico.com. 17 Jan 2012.

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