Sunday, July 22, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: More unprecedented Obama

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Amy Sherman:  writer, researcher
Angie Drobnic Holan:  editor


One would think that persons paying close attention to the specific wording of a claim would accurately note the difference between "outspent" and "out-raised."

PolitiFact give an accurate enough account of the statement from President Obama and its context in a fundraising letter.

Then comes the odd turn:
We researched whether Obama’s team could be outraised by Romney and concluded that there are too many unknowns to determine if his prediction will come true. (Read our extended analysis of the issue.)
It's okay to research whether Mitt Romney would outraise Mr. Obama so long as one maintains the distinction between raising money and spending it.  Certainly it's far easier to outspend an opponent if one has raised more money.

The fact check proceeds to focus on fundraising and concludes that presidential challengers Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole outraised the incumbent in 1980 and 1996 respectively.

The issue of spending gets somehow misplaced along the way and we end up with the following conclusion (bold emphasis added):
Obama was wrong to suggest that there hadn’t been other presidents in modern history to be outraised in their re-elections. Looking at numbers alone, Carter and Clinton fall into that category. But what we are comparing is  primary races then with total fundraising for the general election now.

We think 1980 and 1996 certainly fall under "modern history," but the campaign finance picture has changed dramatically since then, and there are important caveats to those races. Those earlier races involved public financing -- this time Obama and Romney are forgoing those dollars.
PolitiFact rates the statement "Mostly False," defined as "The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."

Yes, the fundraising letter ignores the critical fact that the modern era for incumbent presidents begins this year with Mr. Obama's campaign.  Both campaigns eschewed public financing for this election.  But what was the element of truth in the statement?  It was false that Mr. Obama would be the first incumbent outspent by his rival.

The fact check doesn't tell you what's true about the statement, if anything.

We are left to guess whether Mr. Obama receives credit for the underlying argument, minus the unprecedented second-place fundraising, that the Romney campaign will outspend the President's campaign.  And the fact check never gets around to checking on spending after looking at fundraising.

In the end, we get another example of PolitiFact applying its standards unequally.  PolitiFact checks the wrong fact--fundraising instead of spending--and after that ignores its own "burden of proof" standard that assumes a claim false if PolitiFact does not discover evidence to support the claim.

The grades:

Amy Sherman:  F
Angie Drobnic Holan:  F

The PolitiFact team checked the wrong fact, so readers will not find out from this story whether past incumbent presidents were outspent by their challengers.  The PolitiFact team gave Mr. Obama a "Mostly False" rating without explaining what aspect of the claim it found true.  That rating appears to contradict PolitiFact's statement of principles.

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