Mid-Campaign: the numbers on honesty

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might each claim the other lies more, but the numbers don't lie: so let's look at the numbers.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump might each claim the other lies more, but the numbers don’t lie: so let’s look at the numbers.

We’re mid-campaign in the US Presidential Election. How are the candidates holding up? Running for President entails the use of vast amounts of propaganda. Some of it is aligned with facts, much of it is not. How are the major party candidates doing after months of slinging accusations back and forth at one another?

Surprisingly, not too much has changed for either candidate. PolitiFact.com [1], which fact-checks claims made by public figures, has checked 251 and 252 of Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s statements, respectively. Given how much longer Clinton has been in the public spotlight and how much bigger her file was a few months ago, it’s remarkable to note that Trump has made so many claims in such a short period of time that required fact-checking. Before the primaries, PolitiFact’s file contained about 211 Clinton claims and 157 Trump Claims. Clinton’s pile of claims has increased by about 19%, while Trump’s pile increased by about 61%.

This offered both of them the opportunity to be more (or less) honest over time. Here are what the numbers have to say.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton, Democratic nominee for US President.
Hillary Clinton, Democratic nominee for US President.

Of Clinton’s 251 fact-checked claims, some of which are the same claim repeated in different ways, PolitiFact.com has rated 72% of them as “half-true”, “mostly true”, or “true”; the remainder (28%) are assessed as “mostly false”, “false”, or “pants on fire” (so false they must be an intentional lie). A cursory check of a competing fact-checking site, FactCheck.org [2], on a few of the claims suggests independent assessors drew similar conclusions about her claims (FactCheck.org does not provide numerical data the way that PolitiFact.org does, and this is not my full-time job). Clinton tells “pants-on-fire” whoppers just 2% of the time. She utters completely true claims 22% of the time. Her ratio of true-to-pants-on-fire is a little over 10; she’s 10 times more likely to utter a completely true statement than a pants-on-fire whopper. Back before the conventions, she was almost 20 times more likely to do so, so she’s told more claims, more of which have been pants-on-fire, which has weakened that number. Nonetheless, she’s only told a total of 6 pants-on-fire claims, so these are small numbers anyway.

Her numbers are essentially stable. Prior to the conventions she was at, 23% competely true, 28% “mostly false” (or worse) and 1% “pants on fire”. So her numbers have barely moved overall.

Let’s summarize the numbers:

  • Fraction of claims that are absolutely true: 23%
  • Fraction of claims that are at least half-true: 72%
  • Fraction of claims that are at least mostly false or worse: 28%
  • Fraction of claims that are “pants-on-fire” outright lies: 2%

Donald Trump

Donald Trump, Republican nominee for US President.
Donald Trump, Republican nominee for US President.

Of Trump’s 252 fact-checked claims, just 30% are at least half-true; 70% are mostly false or worse. He tells “pants on fire” whoppers 18% of the time. Prior to the primaries, his numbers were at 76% “mostly false” (or worse) and 19% “pants on fire”. He’s barely improved on the rate at which he tells “pants on fire” whoppers, while he’s made progress toward honesty otherwise (he used to be mostly false 76% of the time; now it’s just 70% of the time). His totally true fraction is 4% now (2% before the conventions). His ratio of totally-true-to-pants-on-fire is just under 0.25… he’s just over four-times MORE LIKELY to tell a pants-on-fire whopper as the absolute truth. That is a remarkable contrast with Clinton. Back before the conventions, it was more like a factor of 10 times more likely to tell a pants-on-fire whopper than the absolute truth, so things have improved… but this is still a terrible number. Clinton has told just 6 pants-on-fire whoppers; Trump has told 46.

Let’s summarize the numbers:

  • Fraction of claims that are absolutely true: 4%
  • Fraction of claims that are at least half-true: 30%
  • Fraction of claims that are at least mostly false or worse: 70%
  • Fraction of claims that are “pants-on-fire” outright lies: 18%

Reading the numbers

So, by the numbers, now as before, Clinton is vastly more honest than Trump. Being neck deep in the sewage of the political campaign hasn’t really changed that big picture. We can argue about whose lies are worse, but those are personal judgments based on opinions. The bottom line is, given the opportunity to spread information, Clinton will spread absolutely true information about 22% of the time, while Trump will do so only 4% of the time; Clinton will spread wrong information 28% of the time while Trump will do so 70% of the time. Given the chance to make up complete and utter nonsense and spread it as fact, Clinton will do this 2% of the time while Trump will do it 18% of the time. Clinton’s absolutely true numbers are the reverse of Trump’s pants-on-fire numbers, and vice versa.

Many Americans who respond to poll questions about these candidates claim there is not a whole lot to like about either of them, but from the perspective of a scientist the question boils down to a simple set of questions. Whom do you want as President for the US: someone who tells falsehoods (or worse) 28% of the time, or someone who can lie almost 3 times more? Whom do you want as your President: someone who makes up total bullshit 2% of the time, or someone who makes up total bullshit 9 times more often?

[1] PolitiFact.com

[2] FactCheck.org