Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PFB Smackdown: Rachel Maddow (Updated)

We agree with Rachel Maddow up through about the 55 second mark.  Yes, PolitiFact is bad, and PolitiFact is so bad at fact checking that it doesn't deserve frequent citations as a trustworthy source. 

After that, our level of agreement starts to drop.

Sen. Rubio (R-Fla.) stated that most Americans are conservative and went on to argue the point based on attitudes toward the labels "conservative" and "liberal."

Maddow ignores the context of Rubio's remarks and attacks it using survey data about the way Americans self-identify politically.

Maddow is supposed to be ultra smart.  So how come she can't figure out that Rubio's statement isn't properly measured against self-identification numbers?

It appears that Maddow uncritically followed PolitiFact's approach to judging Rubio's accuracy.  The self-identification numbers serve as interesting context, but it's perfectly possible for 100 percent of Americans to self-identify as "liberal" yet reasonably classify as majority conservative.  That's because people can have inaccurate perceptions of their location on the political spectrum.

So, was Rubio correct that the majority of Americans are conservative?  That depends on his argument.  Rubio didn't cite surveys about self-identification.  He used a method concerned with attitudes toward the respective labels.  One can argue with the method or the application of the method, but using an inappropriate benchmark doesn't cut it.
When you ask people which party they lean toward, the independents split up so that the country is almost evenly divided. For the year of 2011, Gallup reported that 45 percent of Americans identified as Republicans or leaned that way, while 45 percent identified as Democrats or leaned that way.
Is "Republican" the same label as "conservative"?  No, of course not.

PolitiFact came close to addressing Rubio's point by looking at the political leanings of moderates, but fell short by relying on the wrong label along with the self-identification standard.  Maddow's approach was even worse, as she took Rubio's comment out of context and apparently expected PolitiFact to do the same thing.

Meanwhile, PolitiFact defends itself with the usual banalities:
“Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim,” Adair explained. “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,” he continued.
Pretty weak, isn't it?

Update 2/19/2012:

With a hat tip to Kevin Drum of Mother Jones (liberal mag), we have survey data that help lend support to Marco Rubio (as well as to my argument in his defense):

(click image to enlarge)

1)  The survey, from Politico and George Washington University, is limited to likely voters.
2)  The poll essentially forces likely voters to choose between "liberal" and "conservative."
3)  A plurality of those surveyed (43 percent) lean Democrat or self-identify as Democrat.
4)  Despite the plurality of Democrats in the survey sample, 61 percent identify as conservative ("Very conservative" or "Somewhat conservative").

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