False Claims of the Presidential Candidates

Pants on Fire - FalsePaul Bibeau did a little research, Which 2016 Candidates Are the Biggest Liars According to Politifact? He went over to PolitiFact and counted all the articles that they had done on the various presidential candidates to see what percentage of them were “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire.” It’s an interesting idea. But we don’t want to take it all that seriously.

The big thing here is that this is hardly a random sample. And conservatives are absolutely convinced that PolitiFact is part of the liberal media conspiracy. They think this because, consistently, conservatives come off worse than liberals. And it just can’t be that conservatives are just more likely to either lie or not have their facts straight, can it? At the same time, liberals like me think that PolitiFact is far too hard on fellow liberals. It has a tendency to nitpick and find clearly true statements “half true.” All of the fact checking groups have this problem.

Why Republicans Say False Things

Since it clearly is the case that conservatives are simply more likely to believe things that aren’t true, conservative politicians are more likely to go around repeating this nonsense. There are cultural and ideological reasons for this: liberals pride themselves on following the facts and conservatives pride themselves on their certainty. It isn’t a value judgement, but it does explain why conservative public figures would end up saying more false things.

But this puts the fact checking people in a bit of a bind. If they find too many lies on one side, they will be written off as biased. But if they go out of their way to make the numbers even, then they aren’t doing their jobs. I think what ends up happening — probably without them even knowing it — is that they loosen up on the conservative claims and tighten up on the liberal claims. The result is still that the conservatives come off worse, but it isn’t as stark as it is in reality.

Not Lies — Just False

One thing I disagree with Bibeau about, however, is that these claims are lies. And I’ve always thought the “pants on fire” designation was stupid. In the vast majority of cases, the people making false claims actually believe them — they aren’t lying; they’re just misinformed. Of course, the Republican Party is indeed “post-truth.” But not valuing the truth is not the same as actively misrepresenting it.

Here is the list, along with the ones that Bibeau didn’t include. I’ve filtered out all of the candidates who don’t have at least 10 statements:

Candidate Statements Fire % False %
Donald Trump (R) 29 21% 83%
Ted Cruz (R) 49 8% 70%
Rick Santorum (R) 56 9% 53%
Mike Huckabee (R) 34 12% 50%
Scott Walker (R) 146 7% 49%
Lincoln Chafee (D) 17 0% 47%
Rick Perry (R) 166 11% 46%
Marco Rubio (R) 95 2% 39%
Rand Paul (R) 40 5% 35%
Lindsey Graham (R) 12 0% 34%
Chris Christie (R) 93 8% 32%
John Kasich (R) 51 6% 32%
Jeb Bush (R) 46 2% 32%
Martin O’Malley (D) 10 0% 30%
Hillary Clinton (D) 114 2% 29%
Bernie Sanders (D) 23 0% 23%
Not listed: Ben Carson (R, 100% of 3 statements), Carly Fiorina (R, 57% of 7 statements), Bobby Jindal (R, 14% of 7 statements), and Jim Webb (D, 14% of 7 statements).

Partisan Differences

That’s a pretty stark list. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the people actually used this to form their opinions about the parties? But the thing is that I suspect that most people already know about this. But this is where we get into the whole idea of cynicism. “Well, Clinton lies 29% of the time so she’s no better than Trump!” But what the table shows above all is that the Democrats operate in more or less the real world. And the very high levels of false claims are more an indication of the demagoguery of the Republican Party than anything else.

Still, I think the whole thing is true. And it probably understates the reality because of PolitiFact skewing. For example, the last “true” claim of Jeb Bush that the group investigated was, “Says his release of 33 years of tax returns is ‘more than any presidential candidate in history.'” Wow, I’m sure people were just begging for them to get to the bottom of that one! Just the same, the last Clinton “mostly false” was, “Despite keeping distance from national media interviewers, ‘I did local press all along, the last three months.'” This isn’t actually false, but PolitiFact didn’t think she did enough local press, so it’s “mostly false.” But again: not exactly something the people were begging to know about.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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