Donald Trump: Why so low on the meter, so high in the polls?

Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump rests inside his plane before addressing a campaign rally on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Rick Wood photo)
Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump rests inside his plane before addressing a campaign rally on March 29, 2016 in Janesville, Wis. (Rick Wood photo)

When it comes to his record on being fact checked, Donald Trump runs at the back of the pack among the candidates for president -- way back.

And yet, when it comes to winning delegates in pursuit of the Republican nomination, Trump is the frontrunner -- by a mile.  

If your head finds this a contradiction, maybe try using your heart instead.

"Even though we’d like to imagine that politics is mainly about making a rational judgment about the candidate whose policies make the most sense, it’s always been the case that politics has been as much about our hearts as our heads," said Lucas Graves, author of Deciding What’s True, a forthcoming book about fact-checking journalism in America.

"I would say it’s more about our hearts than our heads -- and that’s not true of just Trump supporters, or supporters of other candidates who make outrageous statements," Graves added. "All of us feel first and then reason later. We’re often rationalizing and finding ways to make the facts support our instincts."

Campaigning in Wisconsin ahead of the state's primary on April 5, 2016 turned out to be rough for the New York businessman. He was excoriated -- from the right and the left -- for saying in Green Bay that women should be punished for having an abortion. And through March 31, 2016, in three fact checks on claims he made in Wisconsin, he earned two ratings of False and one Pants on Fire.

That left Trump with this record on the Truth-O-Meter, based on 121 fact checks done as of March 31, 2016:

 

True

Mostly True

Half True

Mostly False

False

Pants on Fire

2%

6%

14%

17%

42%

19%

 
 
Trump is far ahead of the other remaining presidential candidates in terms of the percentage of statements that have been rated False or Pants on Fire:

-- Trump: 61 percent

-- U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas: 36 percent

-- Gov. John Kasich, R-Ohio: 18 percent

-- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, running as a Democrat: 14 percent

-- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Democrat: 13 percent

Graves, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offered a cautionary note on the figures: Because the statements rated by PolitiFact are not chosen at random, they are not a statistically valid measure of a candidate’s overall truthfulness.

"At the same time, common sense suggests that some candidates have a more difficult relationship with the truth than other candidates, and it’s pretty clear that some candidates are much more careful in choosing their words and making statements than other candidates," Graves said.

"I think there’s just no doubt that Trump exhibits an unusual disregard for the truth and he’s a lot less careful with his words" than other candidates, past and present.

In Wisconsin, polls show Trump trailing Cruz. Nevertheless, he holds a commanding lead in the overall race for delegates. Trump has 736, compared to 463 for Cruz and 143 for Kasich. In all, 1,237 delegates are needed to win the GOP nomination.

Trump’s charisma and perceived leadership abilities are often cited to explain his popularity. But it’s clear his supporters also value some of his policy priorities, such as controlling immigration and combatting terrorism, even if he often disregards the facts.

Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University in New York, said people who support a politician can discount a bad record on the facts. They might believe a media outlet is biased, or that a claim that was debunked isn’t all that important anyway.

As for Trump, he "has set himself up as candidate who speaks off the cuff and as someone who is comfortable with very little nuance, and so part of the appeal of him is that he is not necessarily poll tested or he doesn’t know specific facts," said Gadarian, who specializes in political psychology, political communication and public opinion.

"And what that means is that often he’s going to say things that are not consistent with each other, or consistent with government facts," she said. "And I think that that’s part of his appeal: He’s not going to be someone who’s concerned with being specific or being concerned with how government normally works."

Research indicates that false information is difficult to refute when the correct information is contrary to a person’s political point of view.

"We shouldn’t expect fact checks to change people’s minds about highly controversial issues or political figures," said Dartmouth College governor professor Brendan Nyhan, who has written on fact checking and political campaigns.

"The presence of misleading claims doesn’t mean fact checking isn’t working -- the problem might be even worse if it weren’t for fact-checkers," he said.

The Donald, though, is a special case.

Trump’s many campaign misstatements collectively won him PolitiFact National’s Lie of the Year award for 2015. And a February 2016 Washington Post article on Trump’s poor record with us -- as well as with FactCheck.org and the Post’s Fact Checker -- said Trump "may indeed be America’s first post-factual candidate."

Among his nearly two dozen Pants on Fire claims:

"I don't know anything about David Duke." (Even though Trump had denounced the former Ku Klux Klan leader several times over the past two decades.)
 

President Barack Obama "wants to take in 250,000 (people) from Syria." (The administration has said it plans to increase refugees admitted -- from all countries -- from 70,000 in 2015 to 100,000 in 2017.)

Julia Azari’s take on Trump seemed to go to the heart of the matter.

"I think what the Trump candidacy illustrates is that what people perceive as authenticity is kind of different from actual, fact-based honesty," said Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

"He’s seen as telling an emotional truth about the ways in which some people are experiencing life in contemporary America. When people feel excluded or threatened, that will probably beat facts every time."

At least one survey, conducted in late December 2015 and early January 2016, indicates many Trump supporters feel voiceless.

Rand Corporation found that among Americans likely to vote in the Republican primary, 86.5 percent were more likely to prefer Trump if they somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that "people like me don't have any say about what the government does."

"Some of the people who support Trump understand that he stretches the truth," said Graves. "But they clearly appreciate that he’s not as careful with his words as most politicians; and the values that he’s expressing resonate.

"People care about what you stand for as much as the particular policies you’re endorsing -- or whether you have all of your facts straight."