Fact-checking in a post-Trump era

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What if President Trump just tried to tell the truth?

© Evan Vucci/AP President Trump appears at a campaign rally in Florida.

It’s a question I have long pondered as editor and chief writer of the Fact Checker, where we have assiduously tracked every speech, tweet and news conference during Trump’s presidency and counted more than 22,000 false or misleading statements.

In fact, when Trump unexpectedly won the presidency four years ago, I expressed cautious optimism that his truth-telling would improve: “Now that Trump will assume the presidency, he may find that it is not in his interest to keep making factually unsupported statements.”

The reasoning was that to advance his aims, the president would have to operate in a reality-based world. For instance, if Trump wanted to succeed at replacing the Affordable Care Act with an alternative, I suggested he would need to drop vague policy claims that he would create something “terrific” that is “so much better” and instead offer detailed specifics that would ensure legislative success.

Well, he failed to do so. Even after nearly four years as president, he kept claiming he had a health plan he would soon unveil. He also falsely said he would protect patients with preexisting conditions even as he pursued a strategy in the courts that could nullify those protections. It was a balancing act that, as the election results show, was unsustainable.

In any case, we do not write fact checks to influence the behavior of politicians; we write fact checks to inform voters. What voters — or politicians — do with the information in our fact checks is up to them.

Trump’s victory in 2016, some commentators asserted at the time, showed that the United States had entered a post-fact era. But his defeat to Democrat Joe Biden suggests that adherence to the facts does matter.

Through his entire term, Trump is the first president since World War II to fail to ever win majority support in public opinion polls. A key reason is that relatively few Americans believed he was honest and trustworthy, a key metric in Gallup polls. Gallup has described this as “among his weakest personal characteristics.”

Trump earned 33 or 34 percent on the trustworthiness question throughout his presidency, though it inched up to 40 percent in the weeks before the election. By contrast, Americans were more likely to consider George W. Bush (65 percent), Barack Obama (61 percent) and Bill Clinton (46 percent) honest and trustworthy.

When looking just at the popular vote, it was not an especially close election. Nate Silver of FiveThrtyEight.com wrote that “extrapolating out from current vote totals, I project Biden winning the popular vote by 4.3 percentage points and getting 81.8 million votes to President Trump’s 74.9 million, with a turnout of around 160 million.” That’s a difference of almost 7 million votes.

Of course, the electoral college determines the victor of the presidential election, not the popular vote. But when you drill down to the state level, you can see the limits of Trump’s lies — and how they may have backfired.

In Arizona, worth 11 electoral votes, Biden is holding on to a slim lead of 18,000 votes that will probably shrink a bit more before all of the votes are counted. Biden also has a lead of 10,000 votes in Georgia, which counts for 16 electoral votes.

More than 3.2 million votes were cast in Arizona and about 5 million in Georgia. It’s quite possible that at least 9,000 people in Arizona and 5,000 in Georgia were upset enough at Trump’s continued false attacks on native sons Sen. John McCain (R) and Rep. John Lewis (D), even after they died, that they decided to support Biden over Trump.

Similarly, the Trump campaign flooded the upper Midwest with ads that falsely said Biden supported defunding the police, only to lose Michigan (16 electoral votes) and Minnesota (10 electoral votes) by substantial margins and Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) narrowly. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania voters were bombarded with ads falsely claiming that Biden would ban fracking, but in the end the Keystone State delivered its 20 electoral votes to Biden, making him president-elect.

In 2016, Trump lost Minnesota by 44,000 votes, He had high hopes of flipping the state this time around, making frequent trips for campaign rallies. But he’s behind by more than 230,000 votes.

A frequent target of his attacks was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali American who he falsely claimed was a supporter of al-Qaeda. She responded by working to turn out every possible voter in the state, including many who sat out the 2016 election.

Trump frequently held rallies in these states. We have documented that his highest ratio of misleading claims was at his campaign rallies, so his failure to win these states also demonstrates the limitations of a tsunami of falsehoods.

Preliminary exit polls indicate that another key Trump message fell flat. In the final weeks of the race, he played down the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that the country was rounding the corner even as cases roses. But 51 percent of voters said containing the coronavirus pandemic now was more important, even if it hurts the economy. That was Biden’s message — and he won a bigger share of those voters than Trump won of voters who said rebuilding the economy was more important.

Still, Trump earned more than 70 million votes. That, in part, may be a testament to a right-leaning media environment (such as Fox News and some social media outlets) that elevated his false claims and reaffirmed them. But there is also evidence that when partisan passions are high, fidelity to the truth becomes less important.

A 2007 Associated Press-Yahoo poll found that 71 percent of Republicans said it was “extremely important” for presidential candidates to be honest, similar to 70 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of independents. Fast-forward to 2018, when a Washington Post poll asked the same question and found that identical shares of Democrats and independents still prioritized honesty in presidential candidates, but the share of Republicans who said honesty was extremely important had fallen to 49 percent, 22 points lower than in the poll a decade earlier. That statistically significant shift suggests that many Republicans realize that Trump often lies, yet they have decided that truth-telling is less important than the message he sends about the country.

The Post poll also found that clear majorities across party lines said it is never acceptable for political leaders to make false statements. But there was an important distinction between the two parties: Forty-one percent of Republicans said false claims are sometimes acceptable “to do what’s right for the country,” while only 25 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of independents agreed.

With Trump no longer in the picture and a Democrat as president, it will be interesting to see whether Republicans revert to their pre-Trump norm — or whether they increasingly say they think truthfulness in a politician is no longer important.

When Biden was vice president, the Fact Checker often awarded him Pinocchios. He is prone to exaggeration and not often precise about policy issues, in contrast to Obama, his boss at the time.

For instance, Biden in 2011 touted an Obama-era jobs bill by claiming that the number of rapes in Flint, Mich., had, depending on the hour, doubled, tripled and even quadrupled because the number of police had been reduced. There was no evidence to support any of these statistics, earning him Four Pinocchios and an editorial in the Delaware County Daily Times headlined “Biden plays fast and loose with the facts.”

Earlier this year, Biden told voters at least three times that he was arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela in Soweto. Mandela, later president of South Africa, was imprisoned on Robben Island at the time, making the whole story an impossibility. Eventually, the campaign said Biden was separated from the Congressional Black Caucus members he was traveling with at an airport, but that did not make much sense, either. (Another White member of Congress said it did not happen.)

Still, Biden is bound to be more disciplined than Trump. During the final weeks of the campaign, his speeches were short, carefully crafted and read off a teleprompter. His tweets are spare and clearly assembled with the help of staff. The new president probably will not be sending all-caps grievance tweets in the middle of the night.

Trump so flooded the zone with falsehoods that many fact-checkers had little time to keep up with lies perpetuated by other politicians. Biden will face lots of scrutiny and is bound to make factual errors. But a Biden presidency might also mean that members of Congress will find the spotlight is turned back on them.

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