Data Wonk

Which Candidates Lie the Most?

Aggregating the Politifact ratings of candidates for president and U.S. Senate.

By - Aug 17th, 2016 01:58 pm
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Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one of a number of newspapers that fact-checks statements by politicians. Under the PolitiFact title these papers rate the statements on a scale ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” What do these ratings tell us about the people currently running for President and for the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin?

PolitiFact has a web page with links to every organization whose claims have been fact checked. The chart below shows the tabulation for the five people who were still active candidates for their party’s presidential nomination in the April Wisconsin presidential primary: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich for the Republican nomination and Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic.

PolitiFact Rating of Statements Presidential Candidates

PolitiFact Rating of Statements by Presidential Candidates

The heights of the bars—and the left-hand scale–show the percentage of a candidates statements that fell into each category: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and pants on fire. The numbers above the bars show the actual counts for each candidate examined by PolitiFact. For instance Trump made 76 statements rated false, while Sanders had the most statements (41) rated mostly true. Clinton had the most total fact checks (236), followed by Trump (208).

It is worth noting that this does not represent a randomly chosen sample of a candidate’s claims, so that normal statistical tests do not apply. Instead, it is what is called a “judgment” sample; someone is making a judgment in selecting the statements to be checked. Presumably the PolitiFact staff would be looking for statements that seem untrue or at least are not obviously true, biasing the results in the direction of untrue statements.

Also PolitiFact does too little, in my view, to separate deliberate lies from inadvertent misstatements. Are they repeated even after their falsity is pointed out? Is the campaign willing to give supporting evidence? Recently, for instance, Vice President Joe Biden accused Trump of wanting to “carpet bomb” ISIS, but that statement had actually been made by Cruz.

And sometimes, PolitFact, in my view, misfires in its ratings.

Despite these limitations, the distribution can be used to get an idea of a candidate’s willingness to lie or stretch the truth. On the chart above, one can get an idea of a candidate’s concern for truth by noting where the peak bar falls. Falling on the right suggests that truth is not a priority for the candidate. Notably over half of Trump’s statements were rated false or pants on fire. By comparison, Kasich, Sanders, and Clinton all have peaks on the left.

To further quantify the results, I added the percentages of statements rated true or mostly true. They are shown in blue on the chart below. Similarly the total percentages rated false, mostly false, or pants on fire are shown in orange. Those rated half true were assigned to neither category. The line (and the scale on the right) shows the ratio of the two categories.

True vs False

True vs False

This evaluation puts the candidates into two categories: those who mainly tell the truth (Clinton, Sanders, and Kasich) and those more prone to falsehoods (Trump and Cruz). Compared to Trump (about 14 percent of statements were true), more of Cruz’ statements (about 22 percent false) had an element of truth.

Finally I converted the ratings into numbers on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 represents pants on fire and 5 true and calculated the weighted average. Again, there is not a notable difference between Kasich, Sanders, and Clinton, while Trump rates at the bottom.

Weighted Average of Ratings by Presidential Candidates

Weighted Average of Ratings by Presidential Candidates

The Washington Post also does fact checking under the FactChecker label and awards up to four “Pinocchios” based on how untrue the statement is. So far, it appears the Post does not have a location similar to PolitiFact’s that tabulates the results. However, it does have this summary of Trump’s statements:

As of July 14, 64 percent (35 of 55) of our rulings of his statements turned out to be Four Pinocchios, our worst rating. By contrast, most politicians tend to earn Four Pinocchios 10 to 20 percent of the time. (Moreover, most of the remaining ratings for Trump are Three Pinocchios.)

At least when it comes to Trump’s lack of trustworthiness, the Post is consistent with PolitiFact.

These results raise the obvious question. If Clinton’s trustworthiness is roughly equivalent to that of Sanders and Kasich—and, as we shall see, Barack Obama–why do polls show so many voters distrusting her? In the latest Marquette Poll, only one-third of respondents (32 percent) describe her as honest, about the same as Trump (33 percent).

Part of the explanation, I think, is she has been under national scrutiny, and attack, for a long time, at least since 1992 when her husband was elected president. As early as 1993 as respectable a publication as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal was suggesting that she had a role in the murder of Vince Foster or was connected in some way to drug smuggling at a small Arkansas airport. Trump has recently revived the first charge; we can probably expect the second to rear its head.

The very nastiness of the attacks on her may have made her less open and more defensive. This in turn may help explain at least one of “unforced errors,” the decision to set up a private email server.

A second factor is that there is a pattern of people being overwhelmingly popular—and a cinch to win elective office—until they run for public office. The graph below (from Huffington Pollster) shows her favorability ratings since 2009 when she first became Secretary of State. So long as she held that position she was tremendously popular. By the end of 2009 she was far more popular than the man who hired her and stayed that way until she quit and prepared to run for president. Her approval then tanked.

Hillary Clinton Favorable Rating

Hillary Clinton Favorable Rating

In addition to the presidential election in November, Wisconsin voters will be electing people to other offices. The chart below shows the distribution of Politifact’s ratings of statements by the two candidates for US Senate, Ron Johnson and Russ Feingold. The number of ratings is much smaller than for the presidential candidates, particularly for Feingold who only has 13.

PolitiFact Rating of States by Senate Candidates

PolitiFact Rating of States by Senate Candidates

That said, Feingold ranks slightly ahead (each has one pants on fire) with 77 percent at least half true, versus 58 percent for Johnson. The weighted average below shows Johnson does significantly better than either Trump or Cruz, while Feingold does better than Johnson but fall short of Clinton or Sanders. Again, the limited number of ratings makes any conclusion less solid.

Weighted Average of Ratings by Senate Candidates

Weighted Average of Ratings by Senate Candidates

Finally, the next chart shows the ratings for three people in the public eye: Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, and Barack Obama. Ryan is the only Wisconsin representative with a national presence sufficient to accumulate statement ratings from both the local and the national PolitiFact.

PolitiFact Rating of States by Selected Leaders

PolitiFact Rating of States by Selected Leaders

Obama’s overall rating distribution looks quite similar to Clinton’s (shown in the first graph). This is confirmed in the chart below, showing the weighted average of ratings for the same three individuals, with Walker ranking as least truthful of the three.

Ryan, despite his reputation for thoughtfulness, peaks with statements rated mostly false.

In my experience Walker’s specialty is a claim that is technically true but does not support the conclusion he makes. A recent example is his claim at the Republican convention that the success of his policies is reflected in the fact that Wisconsin had the highest number of jobs ever. The trouble with that claim is that most other states are also enjoying record employment.

Weighted Average of Ratings by Selected Leaders

Weighted Average of Ratings by Selected Leaders

When politicians lie, their own supporters are the chief victims. Supporters are the ones most likely to believe the lie. Why don’t people then turn against the politicians who victimized them? “If he lied to me then what else is he lying about?”

Or at least, why don’t the betrayed supporters turn to neutral sources of information, ones that are more concerned about their reputation than about pushing a particular point of view? In Ronald Reagan’s phrase, why don’t they learn to “trust, but verify”?

A recent Washington Post article summarizing research on human behavior offers an explanation. It paints a depressing picture on this issue. People suffer from “confirmation bias”: they filter out information that fits their preconceived beliefs. The result is that offering information that refutes a belief can actually strengthen the belief.

Categories: Data Wonk, Politics

19 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Which Candidates Lie the Most?”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    The fact is a lot of people don’t care that much about trustworthiness or who lies the most or Politifact ratings. Earlier today I listened to a recent episode of On Point that covered Trump, Clinton, and the media. A handful of Trump supporters called in and either blamed the media for making people think he’s untruthful or brushed off his statements with something like “she’s worse” (or both). I don’t think it’s just Trump supporters who don’t care much about truthfulness, but it’s pretty clear his supporters could care less about his Politifact ratings.

  2. happyjack27 says:

    why should we care about whether our politicians are or are not telling the truth? what’s important is that their mouth moves and sound comes out.

    and more importantly they’re running under the banner of the party that i identify with, and the other candidate is not.

    also that they yell and incite violence. and spew hate. those are good values to look for in a politician. i can’t imagine anything going wrong there.

  3. happyjack27 says:

    Great article, Bruce. You are speaking what I’ve been thinking. It’s like there was some psychic typewriter somewhere (oh boy, tommyknockers) that I was unaware of.

    To expand a bit on the later points.

    The “give a person information that disagrees with their notions and they will believe more strongly whatever they originally believed.” Is called the “backfire effect”. And it has to do with how we naturally deal with “cognitive dissonance”. “Cognitive dissonance” is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we have differrent pieces of information in our heads that seem to conflict, or in any case we can’t seem to resolve.

    It’s important to realize that human beings aren’t truth-seeking mechanoids. Anymore than a fly seeks “truth”. No, the shape and behavior of the fly was selected from billions of years of evolution, using the simple rule: “that which didn’t die.” And so it is with we humans.

    Up to the current age – this very short “modern” world in which we are newborns, our survival has primarily been predicated on social considerations. For millions of years it has not been about “being right”, but _appearing_ right.

    And so when confronted this comes to the forefront. We feel our credibility, our intelligence, our knowledge, and indeed even the company we keep being threatened. Our natural instinct is to protect. And so we do, and our beliefs grow stionger, quite regardless of whether or not they are “true”. That was never really the risk to us. It was our social status that mattered.

    This varies considerably from person to person. Some people are more analytical and flexible, those people are more likely to update their knowledge when new evidence is provided. To resolve cognitive dissonance by resetting their beliefs and then re-evaluating with the new information.

    Others are more tribal, emotional, etc. these people are more likely to react to cognitive dissonance by looking for a way to dismiss the information or reaffirm their own beliefs, either way almost always on entirely fallacious grounds. (Such as appeal to source or appeal to motive or ad hominem, etc.)

    We need more of the first kind and less of the second.

  4. happyjack27 says:

    And I’m sick of all this “Hillary is untrusty” b.s. Oh wait – did i just reinforce that belief by saying it was b.s.?

    No, she’s very honest.

    The only reason people think that is because the GOP’s deceptive (oh the irony) campaign to waste mounds of taxpayer money on their fake “bengazi” investigations which turn up nothing and in the first place is way out of proportion with the far many more – real – issues that have happened under GOP’s watch – and mind you the GOP caused bengazi by withholding needed funds.

    An then the fake email crap which – take everything that I just said and put it on that – then add the actually “deleted” emails of George Bush.

    It’s not only b.s. but I anything should call attention to the ACTUAL diaster that is the GOP on precisely those subjects.

    And this causes distrust o Hillary?

    No, if anything it should cause distrust of the GOP and the media.

  5. Concerned about our country says:

    Politifact is biased. They couldn’t run a fair poll or rating if they tried. If you want to see who really lies, try looking at the 2 candidates history. Nothing but contradictions, cover ups, and put offs by Hillary over he years. She has history. Trump has no history. He has nothing to lie about yet. So who lies?

  6. happyjack27 says:

    @Concerned about our country: Trump does.

  7. Vincent Hanna says:

    Trump doesn’t lie. Ha. That’s like his attorney who said the other day on CNN that Trump’s not down in the polls. Facts have no relevance to Trumpers.

  8. happyjack27 says:

    @Concerned about our country: Also Fox News is really bad. And GOP politicians are by and large dishonest.

    And more generally mainstream media in general for appealing to the “false balance” fallacy – giving equal air time to opposing views just ’cause they are opposing, even though one side is obviously b.s. and the other side has mountains of evidence. Part of the reason, e.g. most americans don’t understand climate change or evolution.

  9. happyjack27 says:

    Donald Trump: “Crime is rising.”

    Reality: Crime is falling.

    Conservative response: He meant that metaphorically.

  10. JayS says:

    Hillary is much more calculating in her lies;every word out her mouth comes from a carefully crafted teleprompter script. Trump just says what pops in his mind, regardless of the accuracy. Public perception: Hillary is a pathological liar and Trump is a buffoon. I’m not looking forward to the next 4 years;they may be worse than the last 12.

  11. happyjack27 says:

    “Hillary is more calculating in here lies.”

    This is hilarious. So you accept that Trump lies a lot more. And then you add that he’s totally in thoughtful about what he lies about.

    In other words, not only is Hillary more honest, but she’s smarter.

    But then you sell this as point Trump.

    Reminds me of Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy. Better a useless idiot running the world than an honest thoughtful person.

    The different is this lying idiot will have the nuclear codes and he’s like “so why can’t we should we use nuclear weapons?” An you explain it to gun and then he’s like “so why shouldn’t we use nuclear weapons?”

    The Hitchhiker’s guide strategy doesn’t work here.

  12. Concerned about our country says:

    To happyjack27: You might fear that Trump has the nuclear codes and use them? I’m fearful if Hillary gets the nuclear codes she WON’T use them when the time comes. To her, as she’s already proven, it will all be a just like a movie and will be over in 2 hours. Her same lame excuses that she used for Benghazi will apply to attacks on the U.S.

  13. happyjack27 says:

    It’s always hilarious when a conservative brings up bengazi, especially on the point of hypocrisy.

    If you want to talk about deaths and violence in embassies that is the LAST place to look!

    Hell, look at any other year and it’s hugely worse, and the media don’t report on any of that.

    Furthermore republicans withholding funding are the ones to blame for bengazi – I’d say that at best this is ironic, but that would be being too nice. At best this I selfish, malicious, and irresponsilbe.

    I think It’s évidence of just how bad our education system and our media is that you thought bringing up the travesty of republicans and the media wasting millions of dollars on a political witch hit — this is a testament to America’s political idiocrscy and the root cause of our “partisian divide”.

    It’s not only a huge embarassments of Republican politicians and the mass media, but also – an more importantly – a huge embarrassment of our citizens. Frankly you includes. In fact, point on case.

  14. happyjack27 says:

    It’s always hilarious when a conservative brings up bengazi, especially on the point of hypocrisy.

    If you want to talk about deaths and violence in embassies that is the LAST place to look!

    Hell, look at any other year and it’s hugely worse, and the media don’t report on any of that.

    Furthermore republicans withholding funding are the ones to blame for bengazi – I’d say that at best this is ironic, but that would be being too nice. At best this I selfish, malicious, and irresponsilbe.

    I think It’s évidence of just how bad our education system and our media is that you thought bringing up the travesty of republicans and the media wasting millions of dollars on a political witch hit — this is a testament to America’s political idiocrscy and the root cause of our “partisian divide”.

    It’s not only a huge embarassments of Republican politicians and the mass media, but also – an more importantly – a huge embarrassment of our citizens. Frankly you included. In fact, point in case.

  15. haopyjacj27 says:

    I hope that wasn’t too harsh that — to Bruce’s point — you just regress back to how you feel. If it’s any consolation, there is plenty if blame to go around. Firstly, well I guess firstly it’s on the citizen. Modern theory of government puts the citizen at the front line. But secondly it’s on the public education system. And the fault there lies clearly on Republican politicians. Thirdly, however, the fault lies on the partisan divide in America. For example, some people I understand evolution and climate change, and that’s largely on account of our poor education system, which is Republican’s fault.

    But there’s also the media aspect, they’re complicit in that they appeal to false balance – treating opinion and fact as equal. Especially Fox News and Ruport Murdoch’s media conglomerate. Which I suppose traces back to republicans.

    But you can’t fault the media entirely. After all, they’re only giving voice to others opinions. So when the armchair person who is bought an paid for by the Koch brothers, you have to get off the media’s back a little and put the blame where it belongs: on Republicans

    I could go on, but you get the picture: there’s plenty of blame to go around.

  16. concerned says:

    happyjack27: what a tool. Hope your kool-aid tasted great. And by the way, it’s “case in point”, not point on case. I see you also need to learn to spell.

  17. concerned says:

    P.S. happyjack27: what public school did you drop out of? Enjoying your free money?

  18. Vincent Hanna says:

    Oh the irony of someone yelling Benghazi accusing others of drinking kool-aid. Priceless.

  19. happyjack27 says:

    .oh great personal attacks… i should know better than to expect a higher level of dialogue.

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