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Do facts matter? The challenge of fact-checking the campaigns

In anticipation of the final presidential debate between candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the eager fact-checkers who run the machinery at
Candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will face off on foreign policy tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. (Photos: Reuters, Getty Images)
Candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will face off on foreign policy tonight at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.

In anticipation of the final presidential debate between candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the eager fact-checkers who run the machinery at Politifact’s “Truth-O-Meter,” The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” and the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s must be readying themselves for a grand finale filled with “pants on fire” whoppers and "Pinocchio moments" galore. Debates are, after all, a fact-checker’s bread and butter. All the ingredients are right there for the candidates to distort, evade, and invent. There is the urgency to appeal to undecided voters, the emotional flare-ups that come with facing your opponent head-on, and the pressure to remember all of those tiny details, painstakingly pored over and memorized, that prove why your policies would work and why your opponent’s would suck, to use a parlance of our times.

With all these factors at play, it's no wonder that debates sometimes devolve into a schoolyard scene, in which one candidate will say, “That’s not true” and the other will respond with, “No, that’s not true,” a scene parodied in this week’s Saturday Night Live. These exchanges between candidates can become so juvenile, it would be almost unsurprising to hear one of them refute a tax policy charge with, “You and me, outside in the parking lot.”

In the immediate aftermath of a debate, the big three fact-checking hubs release their findings, which are oftentimes alarming.

According’s research, in the last debate Romney said repeatedly he would not cut taxes for the wealthy, even though during the GOP primaries he was quoted as saying, “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20%, including the top 1%.”

If you were reading Glenn Kessler’s work at The Fact Checker, you would have learned that when Obama accused Romney of calling the Arizona law a model for the nation, he was “simply not correct.” Romney in fact called an E-Verify system in Arizona a model for the nation, not the contentious immigration bill SB1070.

And alarms must have sounded for the folks at Politifact when Romney, in response to an audience member’s question about the September 11, 2012 attack in Libya, said:  “The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.”  Politifact’s fact-checkers have rated this statement “pants on fire” so many times, they can probably write this review with their eyes closed, which was likely a welcome break in what was otherwise a busy night.

Yet, no matter what fact-checkers say, or how often they say it, candidates continue to spout untruths, sometimes even the exact same untruths over and over again.  On the one hand, this is good for the fact-checkers, since it means they will always have work to do, but on the other hand, it calls into question whether anyone cares about that work. Is anyone interested in the facts, or is presentation all that matters?

In a recent piece for Mother Jones, David Corn examined how politicians game the fact-checking business. One likely reason for why the lies keep coming is the complete lack of consequence. Corn writes, “With the news cycle moving at Twitter speed, a candidate snared in a lie only has to wait a few moments for the media to move on. The sting fades quickly.”

Not only do candidates seem to be immune to the burn of a lie exposed, but in some instances, they actually seem to thrive off of their versions of the truth.

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi wrote about Mitt Romney’s recent surge following his performance in the first debate, when he came off as what labeled “a serial exaggerator.”

“From the start of the first debate, Romney has almost seemed liberated, spouting line after line of breathless, ecstatic inventions - things that are, if not lies exactly, at the very least just simply made up out of thin air, and seemingly on the spot too," Taibbi observed. "Romney’s realized that numbers don’t matter, and past facts don’t even matter that much. He’s run all fall on completely made-up, mathematically-incoherent jobs and tax plans, and not only is he not suffering, he’s made it all the way to a statistical tie with the president.”

The “mathematically-incoherent” plans Taibbi refers to are Romney’s 12-million-jobs promise, which The Fact Checker gave “four Pinocchios,” and his $5 trillion tax cut that will somehow lower federal income tax rates across the board by 20% and offset that cut with massive reductions in tax preferences, thus making the plan revenue-neutral.

The problem is, Romney has so far been unable to explain exactly how the math pans out without either adding to the deficit or burdening the middle class with higher taxes, save for citing “six other studies,” none of which are nonpartisan, and two of which are blogs written by Romney backers, that support his plan.

The truth-bending is not limited to the candidates themselves. Campaign advisers are great at it, as are the creative brains behind political ads. Surrogates can also dance around the facts with great panache.

On Sunday’s Meet The Press, host David Gregory asked Romney surrogate and debate practice partner Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to explain specifically how the math of Romney’s tax plan would work without simply asserting that it does work. Portman laughed uncomfortably and asserted away.

“It does work. You mentioned the half dozen studies. The president is talking about a study that is not the Romney plan. That’s what’s been great about these debates, and this is why they have helped Mitt Romney in Ohio and around the country is that Mitt Romney has been able to tell people who he is and what his policies are rather than relying on these 30-second attack ads by the Democrats that, as you said, have been running hot and heavy in Ohio, mischaracterizing who he is, misrepresenting his policies. So the policy does work," Portman said. "It does fit together.”

Portman was specifically asked to answer a question with tangible, concrete facts, and instead he did what we have seen so often from the candidates themselves. He ducked, deflected, and dug himself out of the hole.

Tonight’s debate in Boca Raton, Florida is set to focus exclusively on foreign policy, so barring a wandering tangent or two, we will likely not hear any clarification on the elements of the candidates’ domestic agendas that fall short of realistic. But the election is two weeks away, and each candidate has a debate victory in his pocket, so expect to hear all the best lines, ranging from true to “pants on fire.” These guys want to win and they're sprinting for the finish line.

Perhaps no amount of challenging or fact-checking will ever be able to wrestle away a candidate from a great line, factual or not. Most, if not all politicians are hard-wired to win, and in a race as close as this one, any little fib that goes unnoticed by a voter can make all the difference. But tonight, these fact-checkers should still do what they do best and try to hold the presidential candidates accountable.  Because facts will always matter, if not to the person speaking, than certainly to someone listening. As Glenn Kessler noted in David Corn’s piece, “I don't write for the politicians. I write for the voters.”