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Fact Checks

PolitiFact: Voters Face Facts

This is the first of a three-part series using PolitiFact truth ratings (with permission) to score the credibility of politicians and pundits. Part two calculated the combined accuracy of claims by presidents and their staffs. Part three scores the veracity of well-known political people.

Voters judge politicians by the substance of their statements. Thanks to fact-checkers, we can now judge the accuracy of those statements as well. We can compare competing candidates by measuring their credibility.

PolitiFact has been checking political claims since 2007. As of September 2020, they’ve rated the accuracy of 18,150 statements made by 4,217 organizations and persons. Among the PolitiFact-checked people are 2020 presidential and U.S. Senate candidates.

Using (with permission) PolitiFact truth-ratings, I assigned each candidate a truth-score based on the veracity of their claims. I also looked at past Senate elections to determine if voters tend to pick the more truthful candidate. (They do.)

PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter has six levels: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and the fearsome Pants-on-Fire!. In the tables below, Checks indicates the number of a candidate’s PolitiFact-rated statements. Score is the average of their ratings, calculated to be a number between 0 and 1 (see methodology):

  • 1.00 means all their statements were True.
  • 0.00 means all their statements were False.

PolitiFact scores of 2020 POTUS/VP candidates

CandidatePartyChecksScore
Donald TrumpRepublican8610.22
Mike PenceRepublican580.37
Joe BidenDemocrat1600.47
Kamala HarrisDemocrat290.47

The next table compares the U.S. senatorial candidates. There’s a wide credibility differential in several races. We’ll see if voters prefer fact or fiction from elected officials (* indicates incumbent.)

PolitiFact scores for 2020 U.S. Senate candidates

CandidatePartyStateChecksScore
Dan Sullivan*RepublicanAK5.20
Al GrossIndependentAK0
Doug Jones*DemocratAL5.45
Tommy TubervilleRepublicanAL1.00
Tom Cotton*RepublicanAR17.30
Ricky Dale Harrington Jr.LibertarianAR0
Martha McSally*RepublicanAZ9.18
Mark KellyDemocratAZ4.81
Cory Gardner*RepublicanCO9.33
John HickenlooperDemocratCO3.75
Chris Coons*DemocratDE3.58
Lauren WitzkeRepublicanDE0
David Perdue*RepublicanGA21.46
Jon OssoffDemocratGA4.63
Kelly Loeffler*RepublicanGA1.25
Raphael WarnockDemocratGA11.00
Doug CollinsRepublicanGA3.33
Joni Ernst*RepublicanIA7.35
Theresa GreenfieldDemocratIA1.75
James Risch*RepublicanID1.75
Paulette E. JordanDemocratID0
Richard Durbin*DemocratIL13.51
Mark CurranRepublicanIL0
Barbara BollierDemocratKA0
Roger MarshallRepublicanKA0
Mitch McConnell*RepublicanKY33.45
Amy McGrathRepublicanKY0
Bill Cassidy*RepublicanLA3.05
Adrian PerkinsDemocratLA0
Edward Markey*DemocratMA5.70
Kevin O’ConnorRepublicanMA0
Susan Collins*RepublicanME3.50
Sara GideonDemocratME1.25
Gary Peters*DemocratMI2.50
John JamesRepublicanMI2.13
Tina Smith*DemocratMN2.63
Jason LewisRepublicanMN0
Cindy Hyde-Smith*RepublicanMS0
Mike EspyDemocratMS0
Steve Daines*RepublicanMT1.25
Steve BullockDemocratMT2.50
Thom Tillis*RepublicanNC9.36
Cal CunninghamDemocratNC4.44
Ben Sasse*RepublicanNE11.00
Chris JanicekDemocratNE0
Jeanne Shaheen*DemocratNH13.60
Corky MessnerRepublicanNH0
Cory Booker*DemocratNJ32.62
Rik MehtaRepublicanNJ0
Ben Ray LujánDemocratNM0
Mark RonchettiRepublicanNM0
James Inhofe*RepublicanOK2.38
Abby BroylesDemocratOK0
Jeff Merkley*DemocratOR15.73
Jo Rae PerkinsRepublicanOR0
Jack Reed*DemocratRI7.71
Allen WatersRepublicanRI0
Lindsey Graham*RepublicanSC13.46
Jaime HarrisonDemocratSC0
Mike Rounds*RepublicanSD0
Dan AhlersDemocratSD0
Marquita BradshawDemocratTN0
Bill HagertyRepublicanTN0
John Cornyn*RepublicanTX34.54
M.J. HegarDemocratTX2.88
Mark Warner*DemocratVA22.61
Daniel GadeRepublicanVA1.00
Shelley Moore Capito*RepublicanWV7.42
Paula Jean SwearenginDemocratWV0
Merav Ben-DavidDemocratWY0
Cynthia LummisRepublicanWY2.32
Notes: The more times a politician was PolitiFact-checked, the more confident we can be the score reflects their overall accuracy. Also, the second Georgia race is for Loeffler’s appointed seat. Zero under Checks means PolitiFact has yet to check that pol’s statements. Sources: Wikipedia, PolitiFact.

Next, let’s apply the same scoring matchups to past senate races. Did the most truthful candidate win? Yes, nearly two-thirds of the time (64%) the person with the higher truth-ratings won.

Incumbents were more accurate in their statements than were their challengers. Winners averaged higher truth-ratings than losers.

PolitiFact scores of past senatorial candidates

GroupCandidatesChecksScore
Incumbents481,2200.56
Challangers/Open901,6100.42
Winners692,2570.51
Losers695730.43
Democrat Winners366290.61
Republican Winners331,6280.41
Democrat708590.58
Independent1800.54
Republican671,8910.36
All1382,8300.47
Checks is the number of times PolitiFact rated statements by Group members.

Might truthfulness be an indicator for forecasting electoral winners? To even guess at that we’d need much more data from many more elections. But it’s comforting to know honesty is both the best policy and good politics, that nice guys/gals often finish first.

(Although this post is nonpartisan, I’ll note that PolitiFact checked claims by GOPs more than twice than those by Dems. Also, the Dems averaged noticeably higher scores.)

The data from the above table flows from all the senate races for which PolitiFact rated at least one statement by each of the two candidates. The graph below lists those matchups, candidates, and their scores. In the 69 elections, voters picked the most (or equally) truthful person 44 times.

The chart does not list all races, only those in which PolitiFact checked both candidates at least once. The ✓ marks the winner, * the incumbent. Next to each candidate is their average PolitiFact score, 0.001.00 (in parens is their total number of PolitiFact-checks).

Methodology

The above results are from PolitiFact data gathered at the end of September 2020 (spreadsheet). I calculated each person’s score by assigning a number value to each truth-rating level, listed in the tables below, then averaging all their PolitiFact ratings.

PolitiFact ratings as scores
RatingPolitiFact descriptionScore
TrueThe statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.1.00
Mostly TrueThe statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.0.75
Half TrueThe statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.0.50
Mostly FalseThe statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.0.25
FalseThe statement is not accurate.0.00
Pants on FireThe statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.-0.10
The negative “Pants” number makes below-zero scores possible.

PolitiFact has proven to be an essential tool in making democracy work. If you want to keep politics and facts together, please support PolitiFact (a project of the nonprofit Poynter Institute) with a tax-deductible contribution or membership.

This post updates a 2017 report for RJI. Thanks to Josef Verbanac and Claire Golding for editing and to Aaron Sharockman for PolitiFact permission The top image is from a William Jennings Bryan campaign poster, “Shall the People Rule?” (circa 1900), at the Library of Congress.