George Orwell once said politicians’ words are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder sound respectable.” PolitiFact, founded by the Tampa Bay Times in 2007, was designed to examine those truthful sounding lies – and some outrageous sounding truths – and to determine the actual facts underlying both.
The website doesn’t check every politician’s or candidate’s statements, just the ones likely to provoke the most debate. But even by that scattershot standard, the website has had its work cut out for it this election cycle, as PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan discussed in a recent piece for the New York Times.
PolitiFact has found that the biggest liar of this election cycle so far is Ben Carson. Not a single one of Carson’s 25 statements fact-checked by the site was judged to be true; only one was rated “mostly true,” and just three “half true.” Twenty-one of Carson’s statements — a full 84 percent of those checked — were declared either mostly false, entirely false or “pants on fire,” PolitiFact’s designation for the most ludicrous lies.
Some of Carson’s false statements represented an apparent loose grasp of history: For instance, he incorrectly claimed that Thomas Jefferson helped craft the Declaration of Independence and that none of the founding fathers had any elected experience. Others, though — like his incorrect claims about vaccines — constituted the kind of dangerous rhetoric a doctor really should know better about.
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Donald Trump, who had three times as many statements fact-checked by PolitiFact, fared only slightly better than Carson: 76 percent of his remarks were rated either mostly or completely false. A whopping 16 Trump statements (22 percent) were called “pants on fire.” And, like Carson, not a single one of Trump’s assertions was judged to be true.
Trump’s lies were often gross exaggerations — for example, when he said President Obama wants to accept 250,000 Syrian refugees (the actual number is 10,000), or when he retweeted a claim that black people are responsible for 81 percent of white murders (white people are actually responsible for 82 percent of white murders).
Joining Carson and Trump in the shallow end of of the truth pool was the same man who joins them at the top of the polls: Ted Cruz. Of the 65 Cruz statements evaluated, 66 percent were rated mostly false or worse. Cruz has just three wholly true statements to his name, of those checked by the site: 11 mostly true statements and eight half-truths.
A large share of Cruz’s false statements were misrepresentations about Obamacare. He said, for example, that Obama granted all of Congress an exception to the health care law (false), that “virtually” every American has seen premiums go up (not even close), and that the plan would cost twice as much as originally expected (it’s more like 8.6 percent).
Carly Fiorina has a similarly poor record when it comes to the truth: About half of her statements checked by the site were found to be false.
What’s interesting about Fiorina’s lies is that they often invoked bogus statistics, like her assertion that 92 percent of the jobs lost during President Obama’s first term belonged to women, or her claim that 79 percent of people living in abject poverty are women. In fact, abject poverty is split evenly among men and women, and figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show 416,000 women joined the workforce between January 2009 and January 2013.
Practiced politicians Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush tied, with 32 percent of their respective statements rated as fully or mostly untrue; Marco Rubio trailed the pack slightly, with 40 percent of his statements called more or less false.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton each had 28 percent of their remarks ruled false or mostly false. Clinton was found prone to personal exaggerations, like when she called the Benghazi probe “Congress’ longest investigation ever,” or when she said she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House. Sanders tended to make inaccurate statements about America’s place in world when it comes to things like the hours Americans work or the amount we spend on health care.
Sanders, though, holds the distinction of being one of only two candidates with nary a “pants on fire” ruling to his name. The other is Martin O’Malley, who had the fewest number of fact-checked statements (just 16, compared to Sanders’ 43 and Clinton’s 140). But of his scant 16 statements, only 28 percent were judged to be false or mostly false — making O’Malley either the most truthful candidate, or most under-scrutinized.