While scrutinizing claims in the governor’s race in recent weeks, we were struck by the extraordinary faith the major candidates have shown in the strength of statistics.
And we spotted another trend as we evaluated the often-conflicting numbers about the economy, the budget, taxes and more: many Truth-O-Meter ratings tilted toward True.
Is the Scott Walker-Mary Burke race reversing the reliance on misleading, broad-brush campaign messages that so frequently drove our meter to False and beyond during the 2012 recall election?
Are we witnessing the beginning of new policy-oriented kind of campaigning, the ascendancy of stumping with spreadsheets and simple truths?
Probably not, but as they might have said on the X-Files, the truth definitely has been out there in recent weeks.
Reading the meter
Republican Walker has hit the green-yellow side of the meter 8 of his last 10 times, and Democrat Burke has done so 7 of the last 10. The Truth-O-Meter flashes those colors for a True, Mostly True or Half True rating.
A few examples:
Burke said that "Wisconsin’s dead last in Midwest jobs growth" (True). Walker said the latest jobs numbers showed Wisconsin "ranked third in the Midwest" (Mostly True). Both of the seemingly at-odds claims were accurate because Walker focused on economic gains of late, while Burke viewed Walker’s whole tenure.
Walker said his "Act 10 reforms have saved the taxpayers some $3 billion" (Mostly True). Burke claimed "the typical Wisconsin worker makes $5,000 less each year than our neighbors in Minnesota" (Mostly True).
More: Walker claimed Mary Burke’s Madison school district "will be the only school district left in the state" to "ignore the (Act 10) law" in the 2015-16 school year (Mostly True).
And Burke said Wisconsin is "38th in the country in terms of proficiency standards" in student testing (Mostly True).
There’ve been some notable exceptions, of course.
In the ad battle over Burke’s attempt while state Commerce secretary to lure Abbott Laboratories to expand in Wisconsin, Walker said Burke "wasted 12.5 million dollars on a vacant lot" in a move that "could cost taxpayers nearly $25 million" (False).
Talking about the same deal, Burke said a $12.5 million incentive deal she approved for Abbott contained "strong protections for taxpayers if job creation goals were not met" (False).
What’s going on?
There’s an element of pure chance, of course. We select timely and topical statements that catch our interest and hopefully those of readers. But we rate only a very small sampling of all the utterances by these officials.
Perhaps Burke and Walker detect election burnout amongst the populace and merely are trying to tone down the acrimony.
And in a sense the campaign’s just really reaching a post-Labor Day low boil now and soon will bubble over as Nov. 4 balloting grows nearer.
But the recent trend is notable.
We suspected it may be related to a strategy long employed by political campaigns: Keep the candidate (at least somewhat) above the fray, while surrogates do the real dirty work.
So we gazed back at the last 10 Truth-O-Meter ratings on claims by political action groups, parties and others. It happened that claims we evaluated from that realm were mostly by Democratic-supporting entities.
In that sample, six of the 10 were on the red or orange side of the meter -- Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire.
For instance, the state Democratic Party claimed through doctored video that Walker -- when asked by a reporter whether he’s at the center of a "criminal scheme" to violate campaign laws -- nodded yes. (Pants on Fire).
The Greater Wisconsin Committee, affiliated with labor unions, said Walker’s jobs agency gave $570 million in job-creation incentives "to his cronies, corporate friends who contributed to his campaigns." (False).
That committee, though, scored a Mostly True when it contended that "Scott Walker cut school funding more per student than any governor in America." That claim acted as a counterpoint to Walker’s accounting of Act 10.
And bloggers earned a (True) when they said Wisconsin is "dead last in income growth" among midwestern states during the whole of Walker’s term. (Earlier, Walker had claimed : "Wisconsin’s #1 in personal income growth over the year" (True).
The stretch run
In the closing weeks of the campaign, keep an eye on those small-print disclaimers on TV and other advertising messages.
They can provide some hints as to how the campaign is going for either side.
If a candidate starts paying for more negative and less-truthful messages -- instead of letting surrogates sling the mud for them -- it might signal a candidate in catch-up mode. Or at least a race that is still locked in a dead heat.
And that could help set the Truth-O-Meter ablaze again.
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