Does It Matter When Candidates Lie? - Pacific Standard

Does It Matter When Candidates Lie?

There are penalties for lying, but not everyone pays them, and not everyone gets caught.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Iowa Central Community College on November 12, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Iowa Central Community College on November 12, 2015. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If you're a political fact-checker, chances are you've been putting in a lot of overtime lately. Presidential candidates have been debating recently and throwing out quite a few whoppers. Just to review a small sample of the offenses from last week's Republican debate alone:

Carly Fiorina claimed she'd never met Vladamir Putin in a green room (she had), that Obamacare hasn't helped anyone (it has), and suggested that the economy is worse during Democratic presidencies (it isn't). Marco Rubio claimed that welders earn more than philosophers (they don't). Ben Carson said there was an 80 percent unemployment rate among African-American teenagers (not even close). Donald Trump suggested that China was a participant in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (it isn't).

This is not to overlook the more common types of lie in politics—résumé padding. Ben Carson's provided a good deal of that material, but of course Democrats are hardly exempt from this sort of thing. Hillary Clinton famously fabricated some sniper fire when discussing a visit to Bosnia, and Barack Obama suggested his parents first met at the 1965 Selma march, when he was three years old.

Members of the media may or may not catch a lie, but they probably won't catch it at the moment it's being told in a debate, and that's the point at which most people are paying attention.

How dangerous is this for candidates? And if it's at all dangerous, why do they do it?

The dangers are actually difficult to assess. Fibbing too much can certainly earn a candidate a reputation for dishonesty, but it's not clear how much too much is. Al Gore was repeatedly attacked for some of his claims during his 2000 presidential campaign, even those that were true (he actually did play a significant role in the creation of the Internet). This reputation may have hurt him in the election, even though any puffery on his part was hardly out of step with what typically happens in a presidential election. In Gore's case, the idea that he was lying became a convenient media narrative, and any further information was shoehorned into that narrative. But it's not obvious how such a narrative forms or how a candidate can prevent that from happening.

Yet dishonestly is obviously not a reputation any candidate would want to have. So why even take the risk?

For one thing, there's a fair chance you'll get away with it, and you may even impress some people for sounding strong and determined. Keep in mind who the audience is for these primary debates—committed partisans within that party. They're not likely to be put off by a minor fib and may just dismiss it as the sort of mistake anyone would make in the heat of an argument. What's more, it may be a lie that they believe. There's little value in a Republican candidate admitting that the economy has improved during Obama's presidency if most of his audience holds the conviction that it's worsened.

Members of the media, meanwhile, may or may not catch a lie, but they probably won't catch it at the moment it's being told in a debate, and that's the point at which most people are paying attention. Once in a while a fellow candidate may catch a lie as it's being uttered, as Rand Paul did with Donald Trump's TPP claim last week, but that's also pretty rare. So the benefit that accrues from saying something the audience wants to hear may outweigh they penalty you'll pay on the remote chance your fib is detected.

Second, as Hans Noel explained last week at Mischiefs of Faction, the media—those with the best resources for catching lies—are not necessarily equipped to detect the lies that matter most. As he noted, several media sources jumped on Marco Rubio for his claim about the relative pay of welders and philosophers, but the overall policy point Rubio was making about the value of vocational education went largely unanalyzed. The policy point is actually very important, whereas, outside of this particular debate, no one really cares whether philosophers or welders get paid more. (Is anyone currently flipping a coin to decide between one of those two careers?) So most of these fact checks will ultimately just get dismissed as pedantic noise.

Finally, it's good to remember that not all these lies are calculated moments of Machiavellian genius. Some simply happen in the heat of the moment. Candidates a) have rather large egos, and b) spend most of their time surrounded by true believers who rarely if ever contradict them. So on those rare occasions when they're in an adversarial environment like a debate, their ability to catch themselves in a lie is probably somewhat attenuated. And their main incentive at this point is to be quoted and remembered as saying something powerful.

It would be nice to say something true, as well, but that's a secondary concern.

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What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.

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