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PolitiFact Successfully Trolls Media With Marco Rubio Ruling

Marco Rubio

First Posted: 02/15/2012 12:52 pm Updated: 02/15/2012 6:53 pm

In recent months, I've had the occasion to throw shade on PolitiFact for some of its odder determinations, most notably the decision to call a totally true thing the "2011 Lie Of The Year," but also for a recent "Pants On Fire" rating handed out to Mitt Romney that fell well short of that standard. Well, once again, PolitiFact has made a weird ruling on a strange claim and it's ended up rankling the media. It's almost as if that's by design!

The backstory is this: Florida Senator Marco Rubio came to the Conservative Political Action Conference and said, "The majority of Americans are conservatives." Now, in the first place, what do you expect him to say, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is like a rah-rah Comicon for young, college-aged conservatives and various movement swag merchants? Beats me. But PolitiFact felt the need to address the matter.

At any rate, the claim was, if nothing else, a breeze to check. PolitiFact cites Gallup, which in 2011 found that "the largest group of Americans identify as conservative, at 40 percent. Another 35 percent identify as moderate, while 21 percent identify as liberal." So that's a plurality, not a majority. PolitiFact realizes this, writing: "Technically, he would be more accurate if he said a plurality of Americans are conservative." (There's some additional stuff about party identification, in which "independent voters" are a plurality and "Republican" voters finish behind "Democratic" voters, but Rubio never said that the "majority of Americans are Republicans," so we can let that go.)

The point is, we all agree that conservatives are a plurality, not a majority. Shoot, swish, on to the next one, right? Except for some reason, PolitiFact decided to rate Rubio's claim "Mostly True." Huh? What?

From there, Rachel Maddow took to her eponymous show to ridicule the group for this ruling. PolitiFact's Bill Adair -- who seems confused about the fact that people expect him to be an arbiter, and not a "point-of-view-haver" -- responded to Maddow in a statement to Dylan Byers at Politico:

Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim. In this case, we rated it Mostly True because we felt that while the number was short of a majority, it was still a plurality. Forty percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It wasn't quite a majority, but was close.

We don't expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make. We have published nearly 5,000 Truth-O-Meter ratings and it's natural that anyone can find some they disagree with. But even if you don't agree with every call we make, our research and analysis helps you sort out what's true in the political discourse.

As Jamison Foser points out, the problem with Adair's statement is that PolitiFact has an established standard for rulings on matters where majorities are conflated with pluralities. In January, when Ron Paul suggested that a majority of Americans favored the gold standard, PolitiFact ruled this was "false." Why? Because "44 percent isn’t a majority." That's the precedent. This is as it should be. If a polling organization conflated a plurality with a majority, they'd be laughed out of town for the error. None of this gets past Byers, who notes that "Adair's defense serves to prove Maddow's point" and succinctly concludes, "So Rubio's statement isn't true. It's false."

At any rate, the idea that a plurality is the same thing as a majority is sometimes true and sometimes false, depending on how we're feeling that day, says PolitiFact.

At the moment, the sum total of PolitiFact's promised coverage of CPAC boils down to two factchecks of Marco Rubio's speech -- the aforementioned statement about "the majority of Americans" and another Rubio claim that a "U.S. Supreme Court justice suggested that some U.S. cases will be decided based on South African law." So maybe PolitiFact decided it needed to get something up on its website, and opted for this claim about the political identification of the majority of Americans.

But it seems to me that Rubio's statement isn't so much a matter that PolitiFact saw a pressing need to adjudicate, and more like a statement it decided it could rule on in an attempt to troll the internet, garner some attention, and "get everybody talking." This is what Jim Newell was hinting at when he compared PolitiFact to the credit ratings agencies. And you can see the group trending in this direction by looking at some of the matters it has weighed in on lately, like that time it "truth-squadded" something that a fictional character said on the television show "Glee." Seriously! PolitiFact actually did this. Note to PolitiFact: "Glee" is a show about an ostensibly cash-strapped glee club at a public school in recession-era Ohio, that nevertheless somehow conjures up several Broadway-level production numbers every week. We already take the stuff we see on "Glee" with several million grains of salt.

But one could still argue that a plurality of PolitiFact's work is still pretty good, probably.

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