Clinton vs. the Truth-O-Meter

SUMMARY: In this column, PolitiFact editor Bill Adair traces the Clinton campaign through our Truth-O-Meter rulings. The turning point was Bosnia.

As the pundits and politicos dissect the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who went from being untouchable front-runner to second-place finisher, there will be plenty of explanations.

She underestimated the fundraising prowess of Sen. Barack Obama, she bet too much on Clinton administration loyalties, and she failed to prepare for a long race.

But the arc of Clinton's campaign can also be traced in her rise and fall on the simple scale of truthfulness.

When we launched PolitiFact last summer, Clinton was on top of the world. Leading in polls, potent in fundraising, she seemed to be unbeatable. Back then, she stood alone among all the candidates, Republican and Democratic, for her disciplined adherence to the facts. When PolitiFact checked her claims, we found she was nearly always right.

But instead of gliding through a string of victories, Clinton suffered early election losses that turned her well-funded, well-organized campaign operation into a scramble to stay in the game. By late February, Obama had inched ahead and the Clinton campaign began its "kitchen sink" strategy of throwing everything at the front-runner.

The facts got lost in the fight.

The turning point for Clinton's record — and quite possibly for her entire campaign — came in March when she claimed she had ducked sniper fire in Bosnia. At the time, Clinton was straining to distinguish her record from that of Obama, a relative neophyte, by showing that she knew what it was like to come under fire. Literally.

PolitiFact and many other news organizations pointed out that her arrival in Bosnia was more smiles than snipers. Archived news video showed Clinton accepting a poem from a schoolgirl. No one was ducking and running. Clinton earned our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.

About the same time, she exaggerated her influence in bringing peace to Northern Ireland (we gave her a Half True) and how much she helped refugees from Kosovo (Barely True). Suddenly her grades were slipping.

Clinton continued to get sloppier with her facts. She mischaracterized Obama's health plan, distorted an energy bill he supported and she opposed, and exaggerated his remarks about attacking terrorists in Pakistan. She misled voters about how much they would save from a gas tax holiday (she used a number for a family of four but made it sound like a per-person figure) and she made inaccurate historical comparisons to this year's nomination schedule.

Her mistakes were compounded in separate blunders by Bill Clinton. He said his wife's Bosnia error, for example, was a momentary, late-night slip of the tongue. But we found she had made the sniper fire claim at least twice, including in a speech that began at 9 a.m.

The accuracy problems took a toll. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll in mid April — about one month after the Bosnia mistake — Clinton was viewed as "honest and trustworthy" by 39 percent, down from 52 in May 2006. In that April poll, 58 percent said she was not honest and trustworthy.

In December, when voters were asked in a Post/ABC poll which candidate they considered more honest and trustworthy, Clinton led Obama, 35 percent to 27 percent. After the Bosnia mistake, the results flipped. Obama led Clinton, 53 percent to 30 percent.

Of course, PolitiFact has caught Obama in plenty of mistakes, too. In fact, he has earned more False and Pants on Fire ratings (13) than Clinton (9). But, like other candidates, Obama's mistakes have come pretty consistently throughout the campaign, while Clinton had a strong record for accuracy until March and then a spotty one after that.

Clinton's fall from presumed nominee to also-ran is likely to be debated for years to come. But there's no question that her decline in poll numbers was matched by (or caused by) her drop in truthfulness. It might be worth reminding other politicians: If you're going to throw the kitchen sink, make sure you've got your facts right.