Thursday, January 4, 2018

No Underlying Point For You!

PolitiFact grants Trump no underlying point on his claim about the GOP lock on senate seat

The NBC sitcom "Seinfeld" featured an episode focused in part on the "Soup Nazi." The "Soup Nazi" was the proprietor of a neighborhood soup shop who would refuse service in response to minor breaches of etiquette, often with a shouted "No soup for you!"

PolitiFact's occasional refusal to allow for the validity of an underlying point reminded us of the "Soup Nazi," and gives rise to our new series of posts recognizing PolitiFact's occasional failure to recognize underlying points.

PolitiFact's statement of principles assures readers that it takes a speaker's underlying point into account (bold emphasis added):
We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
We see credit for the speaker's underlying point on full display in this Feb. 14, 2017 rating of Bernie Sanders, at the time running as a Democratic nominee for president of the United States (bold emphasis added):
Sanders said, "Before the Affordable Care Act, (West Virginia’s) uninsured rate for people 64 to 19 was 29 percent. Today, it is 9 percent."

Sanders pointed to one federal measurement, though it has methodological problems when drilling down to the statistics for smaller states. A more reliable data set for West Virginia’s case showed a decline from 21 percent to 9 percent. The decline was not as dramatic as he’d indicated, but it was still a significant one.

We rate the statement Mostly True.
Sanders' point was the decline in the uninsured rate owing to the Affordable Care Act, and we see two ways to measure the degree of his error. Sanders used the wrong baseline for his calculation, 29 percent instead of 21 percent. That represents a 38 percent exaggeration. Or we can look at the difference in the change from that baseline to reach Sanders' (accurate) 9 percent figure. That calculation results in a percentage error of 67 percent.

PolitiFact, despite an error of at least 38 percent, gave Sanders a "Mostly True" rating because Sanders was right that a decline took place.

For comparison, Donald Trump tweeted that former associate Steve Bannon helped lose a senate seat Republicans had held for over 30 years. The seat was held by the GOP by a mere 21 years. Using 31 years as a number greater than 30 years, Trump exaggerated by about 52 percent. And PolitiFact rated his claim "False":
Trump said the Senate seat won by Jones had been "held for more than thirty years by Republicans." It hasn’t been that long. It’s been 21 years since Democrat Howell Heflin retired, paving the way for his successor, Sessions, and Sessions’ elected successor, Jones. We rate the statement False.
Can the 14 percentage point difference by itself move the needle from "Mostly True" to "False"?

Was Trump making the point that the GOP had controlled that senate seat for a long time? That seems undeniable. Is 21 years a long time to control a senate seat? That likewise appears undeniable. Yet Trump's underlying point, in contrast to Sanders', was apparently a complete non-factor when PolitiFact chose its rating.

We say that inconsistency is a bad look for a non-partisan fact checker.

On the other hand, we might predict this type of inconsistency from a partisan fact checker.

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