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Do Debate Fact-Checkers Matter? Not So Much Do Debate Fact-Checkers Matter? Not So Much

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ELECTION ANALYSIS

Do Debate Fact-Checkers Matter? Not So Much

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President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver.(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

There are independent fact-checking websites, fact-checking divisions at major newspapers, and partisan fact-checking squads at both presidential campaigns. Yet the facts remain as murky as ever.

Both President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney continue to mischaracterize each other’s plans and their supporters don’t seem to care. Proponents of fact-checking argue that the latest media fad educates voters, but the deluge of information may do little to help partisans or less motivated voters stay informed.

 

Two of the most egregious untruths on the campaign trail are the Obama campaign’s insistence that Romney is a hard-line opponent of abortion and the Romney campaign’s insistence that Obama gutted welfare-to-work programs, fact-checkers say. The campaigns are still making those claims because they’re effective politically, and they conform to partisan stereotypes. "We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," Romney pollster Neil Newhouse has famously said.

But the candidates are also telling half-truths, or subtly misconstruing already complicated policy debates. Take two claims from the recent debates: the claim that Romney’s tax plan would cost $5 trillion, and the claim that Obama cut Medicare by $716 billion.

When Romney turned to Obama during the first presidential debate and said, point-blank, “I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That's not my plan,” Obama seemed thrown off balance. The president had, after all, told Nevada supporters three days earlier that Romney wants to “spend another $5 trillion on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.” 

 

Democrats “should have paid more attention to the fact-checking sites,” said Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “The president deserved to be called out on it. The fact-checkers had all done it,” she said.

Romney has never proposed a tax cut that would cost the government $5 trillion or raise taxes on the middle class, as Obama has been telling supporters. Romney has put forward a proposal to lower income taxes by 20 percent across the board, and promised to pay for it by eliminating unspecified loopholes and deductions. The $5 trillion number came from a Tax Policy Center report that tried to figure out if Romney’s proposal would work.

The Romney campaign’s claim that Obama cut $716 billion from Medicare is equally misleading. Former President Clinton pointed out at the Democratic convention that the "cuts" were to providers and health insurance companies, not to Medicare benefits. Yet the president is still talking about Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut, and his GOP challenger is still talking about Obama’s $716 billion Medicare cuts.

A simple twist in language can turn an independent report into a partisan weapon. “We did not say, ‘Mitt Romney would raise taxes if he were president’,” said William Gale, codirector of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and coauthor of the report. The paper said something more like: “If Romney does what he says he wants to do, then he will have to raise middle-class taxes,” Gale said. The first statement is a political prediction; the second is math, he said.

 

The campaigns have muddied the waters by deploying their own “fact-checkers,” armed with competing data and academic studies that the candidates can whip out to bolster their campaign-trail claims.

When candidates lob conflicting data points at one another, there’s a danger that voters will “throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t ascertain what the truth really is’,” said Marc Hetherington, political science professor at Vanderbilt University.

Independent fact-checkers say their work informs voters and holds politicians accountable. “Campaigns are very aware that fact-checkers are watching them,” said Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact. PolitiFact’s web traffic has shot up this year and “it’s just gone off the charts on debate nights,” Adair said.  

But proponents also acknowledge that fact-checking isn’t going to stop political spin. “We’re never going to change the behavior of candidates,” said Brooks Jackson, director of FactCheck.org. “It’s wired into the political system. We award power to the people who persuade us.”

Increasing polarization in the electorate also works against fact-checking efforts. It’s easier for politicians to get away with twisting the truth “in a polarized world where Republicans don’t believe hardly anything a Democrat says and Democrats don’t believe hardly anything a Republican says,” Hetherington said.  

The burden is on voters to seek out the truth, fact-checkers say. But partisan voters often ignore criticism of their preferred candidate, and not all independents are motivated enough to follow the twists and turns of an increasingly wonky policy debate. If the voters tune out, or decide “that it’s just both sides lying,” then fact-checking hasn’t served its purpose, Jamieson said.  

Despite the deluge of facts, and all the fact-checking, for many voters the debate may boil down to one question: Whose facts do you trust?

The candidates have spent a lot of time talking about data, studies, and independent analysis during the debates. Vice President Joe Biden took a different tack while defending the Democrats’ plan to protect Medicare.

“Who you believe, the AMA? Me? A guy who's fought his whole life for this? Or somebody who had actually put in motion a plan that knowingly cut — added $6,400 a year more to the cost of Medicare?" Biden asked.

Turning to the camera, Biden said, “Folks, follow your instincts on this one.”

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