So what explains the factual recklessness of the campaigns? The most obvious answer can be found in the penalties, or lack thereof, for wandering astray. Voters just show less and less interest in punishing those who deceive. The reasons may be found in the political fracturing of the nation. As some voters feel a deeper affinity for one side or another in political debates, they have developed a tendency to forgive the home team’s fibs. No matter their ideology, many voters increasingly inhabit information bubbles in which they are less likely to hear their worldview contradicted.
In 1960, when John Kennedy won the White House by just 0.2% of the vote, 20 states, with 52% of the population, were considered highly competitive, according to Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz. By 2000, only 12 states, with 28% of the population, had a margin of victory of less than 5 percentage points. This year no more than nine states are in play, and the vote in several of those may not even be close in the final tally. Persuadable voters are increasingly hard to find. As Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor who studies falsehood in politics, puts it, “The incentives for truth telling are weaker in many ways than they have been in the post-Watergate era.”
At the same time, chances are high that your neighbors mostly agree with you and that the media you choose to consume rarely rattles your outlook. The pundits on MSNBC, the Huffington Post and the editorial page of the New York Times do a fine job of calling out the deceptions of Romney, but if you want to hear where Obama is going wrong, you might be better served on the Drudge Report, Fox News or the Wall Street Journal editorial page. “We don’t collect news to inform us. We collect news to affirm us,” explains Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who has been studying the 2012 electorate in swing-state focus groups. “It used to be that we disagreed on the solution but agreed on the problem. Now we don’t even agree on the problem.” All of this contributes to an environment in which, for some voters, unwelcome facts are simply filtered out and flushed away.
Human beings are simply more willing to believe falsehoods that confirm their worldview. In July, 17% of voters told pollsters for the Pew Research Center that Obama is a Muslim, an increase from just 12% in October 2008. Within the GOP, this fiction was believed by 30%, up from 16% in 2008, and the increase was more pronounced among those with college educations than among those without. The President is a Christian. There is no credible information to suggest otherwise. But for many caught up in the passions of politics, the facts are not conclusive.
Instead the public increasingly takes issue with those who deliver the facts. Gallup recently recorded the highest levels of distrust in the media since it began measuring this sentiment in 1998. Only 40% of the country, including just 26% of Republicans and 31% of independents, express a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. “In the past, the press effectively played the role of umpire,” explains Chris Lehane, a Democratic campaign consultant who served as press secretary of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Now they are effectively in the bleachers.”
The result is a landscape where accuracy is largely in the eye of the beholder. If you ask voters which candidate is fooling the public, the answers vary by political disposition. A recent poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that 76% of Romney voters believe Obama is “intentionally misleading” voters. As it happened, the exact same share of Obama supporters believe Romney is “intentionally misleading.” Only 17% of Romney voters and 12% of Obama voters were willing to say their own man had deceived.