Sorting Truth From Campaign Fiction

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mitt Romney says he "saw" his father "march" with Martin Luther King Jr. Rudolph W. Giuliani claims that he is one of the "five best-known Americans in the world." According to John McCain, the Constitution established the United States as a "Christian nation." Ron Paul believes that a "NAFTA superhighway" is being planned to link Mexico with Canada and undermine U.S. sovereignty.

On the other side of the political divide, Sen. Barack Obama says there are more young black males in prison than in college. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton claims she has a "definitive timetable" for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. John Edwards insists that NAFTA -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- has cost Americans "millions of jobs." Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. boasts about his experience negotiating an arms-control treaty with Leonid Brezhnev.

All those claims, made over the past four months as part of the presidential campaign, are demonstrably false.

With just four days until the Iowa caucuses, the art of embellishment and downright fibbing is alive and well in American politics. But the popularity of blogs, YouTube and information databases such as LexisNexis, along with the 24-hour news cycle, has made it easier than ever for the media and rival campaigns to spot the mistakes and exaggerations of presidential candidates.

"The rules of the game are changing," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor and veteran observer of political campaigns. "A claim that something is inaccurate is being vetted more quickly and moving into the media more quickly."

On Friday, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee attempted to link the chaos in Pakistan after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with the issue of illegal immigration, skeptical reporters immediately questioned the claim. The Huckabee campaign was unable to provide convincing backup for his assertion that "we have more Pakistani illegals coming across our border than all other nationalities except those immediately south of the border," a statement at odds with U.S. Border Patrol data.

Huckabee later cited a March 2006 Denver Post article to support his claim that 660 Pakistanis crossed U.S. borders illegally last year. In fact, the newspaper wrote that 660 Pakistanis were apprehended crossing into the United States between 2002 and 2005. U.S. Border Patrol data show that Canada, the Philippines and Poland accounted for larger numbers of illegal immigrants than Pakistan.

Even as own his comments were being questioned, Huckabee criticized Romney yesterday at campaign stops in Iowa, saying he concocted parts of his past. "You are not going to hear me making up stuff about my biography," said Huckabee, who also referred to Romney's exaggeration of his hunting exploits: "I don't go around saying I was a lifelong golfer because I once rode in a golf cart when I was 8 years old."

When a candidate is caught making a clearly false statement, embarrassment or ridicule often ensues -- and over time a reputation can form. But the electoral rewards derived from stretching the truth or distorting a rival's record just as frequently outweigh the fleeting political costs.

"I would not say that the level of honesty or deception is better or worse than in past campaigns," said Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Political Fact Check, who has been truth-squadding political candidates since 1992. "It is a function of running for office that you want to say things that are pleasing to voters."

Some campaign operatives argue that candidates are becoming more cautious about their public pronouncements, for fear of being caught making a mistake. "I think candidates are being more careful," said Mike Gehrke, research director for the Democratic National Committee. He notes that the ease of retrieving information online has made it possible "to fact-check at a much more granular level than ever before."

Candidates' responses to challenges on accuracy can be as revealing as their original statements. Rather than acknowledge that he made a mistake about his father marching with King, Romney argued over the meaning of the word "saw," saying he used it in a "figurative" sense without the intention to mislead. His aides put reporters in touch with eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen his father "hand in hand" with the civil rights leader. Contemporaneous newspaper reports showed that the two men were in different parts of the country on the date in question.

Giuliani has repeated questionable claims on the campaign trail and in his advertisements. A case in point was his assertion in October that his chances of surviving prostate cancer were twice as high in the United States as in Britain "under socialized medicine." He defended the statement as "absolutely accurate," even though his campaign was unable to produce a single peer-reviewed cancer researcher or epidemiologist who agreed with him.

Giuliani took a beating in many media outlets, but that may have been less of a concern for him than for some other candidates, particularly the Democrats. The former New York mayor frequently draws applause from conservative audiences by citing attacks on his record from the New York Times.

Democratic candidates, meanwhile, have reacted to similar challenges by ignoring them as best they can. The Obama campaign did not respond when The Washington Post cited data from the U.S. Census and the Bureau of Justice Statistics to challenge the candidate's statistics on the number of young black men in prison and in college at an NAACP forum in July. The campaign made no effort to provide supporting data when Obama repeated the claim on Nov. 29 at a fundraiser in Harlem.

Obama campaign officials declined to comment yesterday.

Many campaign fibs fall into the category of half-truths. Highly selective representation of the facts has become a staple of politics. By using data selectively and playing with language, candidates can reach diametrically opposite conclusions.

According to Giuliani, for instance, taxes went up in Massachusetts while Romney was governor. Romney insists that they went down. Romney claims that New York City spending increased during the eight years that Giuliani was mayor. Giuliani says it decreased.

Sorting out who is telling the truth is often a matter of getting the candidates to be more precise. Giuliani's claim that spending declined in New York refers to per capita spending rather than overall spending. When Romney says he lowered taxes in Massachusetts, he is referring to three or four very narrow tax cuts. He raised corporate taxes and various miscellaneous state fees.

Setting the record straight on such matters takes time and effort. Days, sometimes weeks, can pass before a falsehood is rectified, and it may be difficult to change voters' initial impressions. "It is easy to get the spin out, but it takes longer to get the facts out," said Gehrke, at the DNC.

Jamieson, the Pennsylvania professor, believes that candidates are being held accountable more quickly than ever. She cites an example from the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore misrepresented the position of his Democratic rival Bill Bradley on flood relief for farmers two weeks before the Iowa caucuses. The first substantive media critiques of Gore for exaggeration did not appear until after Bradley was roundly defeated in Iowa and his candidacy was effectively crippled.

The process of spotting and correcting mistakes can still vary greatly. As far back as 1978, the Boston Herald quoted Romney as saying that "my father and I marched" with King. The most recent reiteration of the quote was on Dec. 6, but it was not until Dec. 21 that Romney's description of the episode was first challenged by the Boston Phoenix.

Giuliani had been making his prostate cancer and "socialized medicine" claim for weeks on the campaign trail without being challenged. It was not until he turned it into a radio advertisement on Oct. 29 that several media organizations, including The Post, began examining the assertion more closely.

The pressure of responding to attacks is unusually intense this election cycle because of the number of plausible contenders in both major political parties.

"It's become a multifront war," said David Bossie, president of the conservative advocacy group Citizens United. "Candidate A attacks candidate B, but then C and D pile on. You have to be on your toes at all times."

Campaign finance records show that the candidates have spent more than $110,000 on subscriptions to the LexisNexis family of databases over the past year. Most of the leading candidates employ half a dozen researchers, who comb the records of their competitors for the smallest mistake. All the campaigns are constantly shoveling out "fact checks" pointing out the errors of rivals.

Opposition research has been a staple of political campaigns for decades, but the Internet has made it easier to disseminate the information. Video of embarrassing moments collected by rival campaigns is routinely distributed on YouTube. When the Democratic National Committee in November unveiled FlipperTV, a Web site devoted to tracking video from Republican political events, it got 60,000 hits on the first day.

Despite the increased risk of getting caught, mistakes, exaggerations and fibs are still plentiful. "Political candidates have been misleading voters for more than 2,000 years," said Jackson, the Annenberg fact checker.

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