Political Fact-Checking: Do Voters Care?

(Ho John Lee: Flickr)

(Ho John Lee: Flickr)

After two weeks of political conventions, fact-checkers are likely taking a moment to catch their breath before diving back into the drive toward the November 6 finish. But how much of an impact do fact-checkers make on the electorate? Several guests joined KQED Forum host Michael Krasny this morning to look at Fact vs. Fiction on the Campaign Trail.

First up, the broad swath of undecided voters this election year, care deeply about issues, more so than in past years, says Barbara O’Connor, Director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at CSU-Sacramento. She’s just back from a week in swing-state Virginia where the talked to hundreds of voters.

“They’re very tired of the PAC ads and the untruth,” O’Connor said. “When you talk to them and I was at a Nascar race … They do care and they care very much about these wonky issues. I haven’t asked them but I’ll start doing that out of curiosity whether they’re paying attention to the fact checkers, but they certainly care about the issues, more than I’ve ever seen on both sides. … Moreover, I think we will have more people watching the debates than we’ve ever seen.”

The big challenge is the complexity of the issues and what that means for campaign statements, speeches and ads. Erik Wemple opinion blogger for the Washington Post believes the complexity and the competing plans can lead to truth stretching or worse. “There is quite a lot of space for you to bend facts, figures, and bend reality, because what you’re talking about is terribly complicated to begin with. So there are these issues here .. that lend themselves perhaps more so in previous campaigns to chicanery.”

This new level of chicanery (or what some people call “lying”) makes the job of fact-checkers more important than ever. While it seems at face value that voters would respond to having inaccuracies pointed out, Bill Adair, creator and editor of Politifact and its trademarked Truth-O-Meter says no one really knows. “We don’t know the answer to that because there’s not good research,” Adair told the Forum audience. “I would expect it’s going to be on folks in the middle. People who have strong partisan leanings either way are probably not going to accept a message that says your guy is wrong. But I think that those folks in the middle are more persuadable — that’s what campaign strategists call them, “persuade-ables.” I think the research will show they are more receptive to a fact-checking message.”

Pointing specifically to Republican vice-presidential candidate’s Paul Ryan‘s speech, which was roundly criticized for inaccuracies, the Post’s Wemple said he wasn’t sure about the consequences for the speech. “Fact-checking is not that mature. It started several years ago. It hasn’t had decades and decades to harden its place in the public dialogue. So it may take a few more cycles before people really get scared about fact-checkers but it’s growing.”

Both fact-checker Forum guests — Adair and Eugene Kiely from FactCheck — said they believe their goal is not to change politicians but to create a more informed electorate. Adair likened his role to that of an umpire and the electorate to the fans watching the game. “We don’t expect they’re going to agree with us every time. … I hope that voters come away from our work informed about what the issues are.”

Listen to Forum: