Presidential Election 2008: Misleading Facts & Vague Opinions

January 23, 2008

How do you pick a candidate? Statements from four candidates on major issues are followed by discussion questions, an exercise on recognizing factual statements and opinions, and suggestions for student inquiry.

At some point in the presidential campaign most Americans choose a candidate to support. Ideally, their choice is based, at least in part, on the candidate's positions on issues, gleaned from speeches, website statements, and answers to questions. It's worthwhile to consider how factual, reasoned, and clear a candidate's opinions are.

The student reading below offers specifics from statements from four candidates on major campaign issues. Discussions questions, an exercise on recognizing factual statements and opinions, and suggestions for student inquiry follow.


Student Reading

"As governor, I cut spending in my first year, our budget actually went down," claimed Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, in a debate among Republican presidential candidates just before the New Hampshire primary.

This is a statement of fact. It does not include opinion words and can be verified. A nonpartisan group called FactCheck.Org did some checking and found that Romney is correct. But note that he spoke about his first year. He was governor for four years. Over that period, FactCheck found, Romney proposed spending increases of 7.5 percent, so he was factually accurate but selective in his choice of facts and left a misleading impression.

Government spending and taxes are important issues for many voters. So it is not surprising that presidential candidates frequently attempt to emphasize that they are very stingy with and very responsible about spending taxpayer money. In that same New Hampshire debate, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, winner of the Iowa Republican caucus, said, "I know that I cut taxes 94 times, and the taxes we cut helped families."

The first part of his statement is factual and verifiable. But FactCheck said that while as governor Huckabee did lower some taxes, he also signed bills resulting in a net increase in taxes of $500 million. Did that also help families? Like Romney, he did not mention this fact. Once again, omission of facts and a misleading impression.

Candidates also use facts selectively and at times misleadingly in print and TV ads. Just before the Iowa caucus, Barack Obama's campaign ran an ad quoting the Washington Post as declaring that Obama's health plan would save families $2,500. The ad asserted that "experts" say his plan is "the best" and "guarantees coverage for all Americans."

FactCheck pointed out that the Post was citing an Obama campaign statement about saving families money and did not analyze it independently. The "experts" were the editorial writers at the Iowa City Press-Citizen . The guarantee of "coverage for all Americans" was asserted in the St. Paul Pioneer Press and, like the ad, omitted mention that while the Clinton and Edwards health plans require coverage for all Americans, the Obama plan allows individuals to buy into coverage if they want to. (www.factcheck.org)

These examples demonstrate, among other things, that a factual statement can be accurate—if cherry-picked—but may come from a tree of sour cherries.

Many Americans want the troops to come home from Iraq. On Iraq policy, Hillary Clinton offered her opinion: "So it's time to bring our troops home and to bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible and I don't see any reason why they should remain beyond, you know, today. I think George Bush doesn't intend to bring them home, but certainly I have said when I'm president I will. Within 60 days, I'll start that withdrawal." (1/5/08)

This response is sprinkled with opinions: "time to bring our troops home"; "bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible"; and "I don't see any reason why they should remain beyond, you know, today" all contain opinions. Opinion words represent a judgment that may or may not be supported with factual evidence and may also be vague. What does Clinton mean by "quickly"? What would bringing the troops home "responsibly" look like?

Questions:

  • If Clinton becomes president, how soon will she bring the troops home from Iraq? (a) As quickly and responsibly as possible? (b) Today? (c) Beginning within 60 days?
     
  • If the withdrawal starts within 60 days, how many more days will it take?
     
  • Is she talking about withdrawing (a) all troops? (b) most troops? (c) some troops?

Clinton has said in the recent past that some (how many?) troops will need to stay to train Iraqi troops, to protect the American embassy, to prevent terrorist attacks, to prevent Iranian infiltration, to help the Kurds in northern Iraq.

[Note to the teacher: You might consider assigning students an essay question: If Hillary Clinton becomes president, how soon will how many troops come home and what makes you think so?]

Presidential candidates must answer many questions daily. Usually, and even in debates, they don't have enough time to discuss them in detail—assuming they could if they had the time. One result is a swift recitation of unsupported opinions from "talking points"—that is, a collection of brief statements of views on many issues they know they will be asked about. Because some of these issues are complicated, candidates often make fuzzy utterances, like Clinton's on Iraq.

In developing your own opinion about a candidate's remark, consider its factuality. Several websites offer help. FactCheck Org describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. We monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews, and news releases." The website is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania

Other, similar efforts include a project of the St. Petersburg Times and the Congressional Quarterly (www.politifact.com) and a Washington Post blog (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker/). All three sites are updated regularly.

Consider also the candidates' opinions. How clearly does a candidate state his or her opinion? Is the opinion supported with facts-at least on the candidate's websites, if not in brief public remarks? Does the candidate present facts selectively, omitting those that are inconvenient?

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How does the reading demonstrate that statements of fact may not necessarily be accurate?

3. What differences are there between a factual statement and a statement of opinion?

4. Why do you suppose that a candidate's comment on an issue may be vague?


Exercise
 

Mark each of the following statements either F for fact or O for opinion.

1. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

2. The U.S. economy is sinking into recession.

3. The "surge" in Iraq is working.

4. The "surge" in Iraq is not working.

5. The U.S. needs a national health care program.

6. The U.S. currently spends more money on health care than any other nation.

7. Americans get better health care than people in other countries.

8. The richest Americans profited most from the Bush tax cuts.

9. Middle class Americans profited most from the Bush tax cuts.

 

For inquiry and writing

1. Have students access one of the websites monitoring the factual accuracy of candidate statements, take notes on three items, and write a report on their findings, taking into consideration the accuracy and clarity of factual and opinion statements.

2. Have students select a presidential campaign issue of particular interest to them, investigate how, in terms of factual and opinion statements, one candidate discusses this issue, and write a report of findings.

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org