Fact Check: Attack Ad on Ernst and Social Security

By Chris Earl, KCRG-TV9

With a recent NBC/Marist poll showing Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst is a 43%-43% deadlock for the open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa, more and more attack ads are flowing into the state.

A media buy, estimated to be at least $500,000 across Iowa, including $109,000 in the Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City-Dubuque television market, from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee criticizes Ernst, a state senator from Red Oak, for her stand on Social Security.

The attention of this airtime purchase has been picked up by national political websites in recent days, pointing to the expectation of a very tight Senate race in Iowa. National observers see this as a lot of money to spend in Iowa with the election still more than three months away.

The issue of Social Security benefits is always a hallmark issue for Iowa voters, given the state’s demographical trends. Of the more than 3 million Iowans, the Iowa Department of Aging says more than 445,000 Iowans age 65 or older received Social Security benefits in 2012.

CLAIM: The 30-second ad, called “Stand”, asks rhetorically: “What does Joni Ernst stand for? She proposed privatizing Social Security.” The ad cites a June 17 article from Radio Iowa for this claim. In the article, reporter O. Kay Henderson reports that Ernst said that, perhaps, younger workers and those just entering the workforce should be able to shift their Social Security taxes into personal accounts and manage their own retirement savings.”

FINDING: The DSCC offers a vague attack of Ernst but the Radio Iowa article is also a vague reply from the candidate when she talks of “younger workers” and “those just entering the workforce”. However, where the gray area of the attack ad comes in from the insinuation that Ernst’s plan would allow older workers or those closer to retirement to shift some of their Social Security taxes into the stock market. The DSCC claim is very vague but, technically, true.

CLAIM (on Ernst’s plan): “…gambling our savings in the stock market.”

FINDING: The ad cites a May 9, 2014 interview with the Des Moines Register. This is not a quote from Ernst but a statement by the DSCC. The purchase of any stock comes with an inherent risk of gaining or losing value upon its sale. Ernst is on the record that she would be “willing” to look at Social Security as a personal savings account for some workers, whether in an interest-bearing account or one that is tied to the (stock) market. Our finding on this claim in the ad is one that requires a leap to logic to go from Ernst considering making younger workers eligible to manage their own accounts to an overarching claim of “gambling our savings in the stock market”.

Here is Ernst’s quote from that May 9 interview with the Register, in full context of the exchange:

“We need to keep those promises to seniors and those that are entering that age bracket but I do think we need to look at younger workers and those entering the workforce and we need to find a solution here and something that I am willing to look at is a personal savings account. It would be one that whether it’s interest-bearing, whether it is tied to the market, I would need to look at the details but I do think that is something we would need to consider. With those personal savings accounts, it needs to be something that is hands off and something that, as legislators, we would not be able to raid.”

CLAIM (on privatizing Social Security): “Experts say that could be a windfall for Wall Street but a wipeout for us.”

FINDING: The ad cites an NBC News article from December 28, 2004. In the first paragraph, author Martin Wolk writes, “President Bush’s plan to partly privatize Social Security could be a windfall for Wall Street, generating billions of dollars in management fees for brokerages and mutual fund companies.” The DSCC ad takes a sentence from the first line of an article from nearly ten years ago. Whether any privatization of Social Security will be a positive or a negative often breaks down to a liberal or conservative viewpoint of the author. At the time, in late 2004, then-President Bush had won re-election but his initial plan to privatize Social Security did not gain much momentum, even before the housing bubble and the major recession followed. Our finding is that the claim of “experts say” with an article from 2004 is not a full consensus of an issue that is highly partisan.

With such a tight race, do expect more and more of these PAC ads, attacking both Braley, the four-term Congressman from Iowa’s First District, and Ernst.

For this ad, “Stand”, we find it vague in the overall sense but mostly true. As with the case of many attack ads, regardless of candidate, online research can, quickly, offer the broader context of a candidate’s positions against the claims of opposing campaigns.

l Comments: (319) 368-8609; chris.earl@sourcemedia.net

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