John Cox is a businessman and perennial, if unsuccessful, candidate for political office. A Republican, Cox is running for governor of California by dint of his second-place finish in the Golden State’s unique nonpartisan “jungle” primary system. Cox is facing an uphill climb: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom enjoys a 23-point lead in the polls. Cox is also getting patted down by fact checkers.
Chris Nichols of PolitiFact recently evaluated Cox’s claim made during a Fox Business Network interview that “[f]ully half the people — our research is showing half the people — in [California] want to leave.” Nichols rated Cox’s claim “Half True,” calling it “exaggerated.” The Cox campaign conducted internal polling that showed that 50 percent of Californians want to move out of the state; when queried by Nichols, a representative for the campaign furnished those results.
So what’s the problem? Nichols found two other surveys that asked the same question, although not in exactly the same way. One of those polls, from the Public Policy Institute of California, found that the state’s housing costs are so high that 44 percent of residents are seriously considering moving from their current location, with 33 percent interested in leaving the state altogether. Another, from UC-Berkeley, found that 56 percent of respondents had considered moving due to housing costs, with 27 percent interested in leaving the state.
“Cox’s statement, while it includes the caveat that ‘our research is showing,’ leaves the impression for the average viewer that it’s a settled fact that half of California wants to move out,” Nichols wrote. “But that’s only the case if one relies on internal figures from the campaign, and ignores results from two outside surveys with much larger samples.”
Two questions arise from this determination. First, the other polls probing Californians’ view of their housing woes were focused more narrowly — and are not necessarily in conflict with Cox’s survey. Second, the candidate’s caveat limited the scope of his claim. He referred only to his own campaign’s research. He was not offering a summary of every poll ever conducted on the issue. He was not even offering a guarantee on the methodological soundness of his own campaign’s survey. He was simply stating that his own research shows that half of Californians want to leave. Which apparently, it does. Nichols could just as easily have rated Cox’s claim as “True,” based on the bare facts, or even as “Mostly True,” given the wrinkle of other surveys with larger sample sizes. Instead, he made Cox out to be half a liar.
Meanwhile, Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler took aim not at a policy claim made by Cox, but at a biographical detail. As a standard line over the years in stump speeches, interviews, and ads, Cox has asserted that he was raised by a single mom on Chicago’s South Side. The Post was alerted by a reader that there might be more to it. Kessler noted that “Fact Checker reader Michelle Pettigrew, an assiduous researcher who lives in California, was skeptical. She started digging into records and newspaper clips and suggested Cox’s oft-repeated line was due for a fact check.” Why did Pettigrew have such an interest? Kessler acknowledged that “Pettigrew has donated to Newsom’s campaign and hosted a fundraiser for him.”
Kessler eschewed the Post’s usual rating on a scale of one to four Pinocchios because “[w]ith the passage of six decades, it’s sometimes hard to separate facts from memories.” Washington Post readers, he added, “can draw their own conclusions.” A veteran reporter, Kessler still pursued the claim with the assistance of a Post researcher as well as documents provided by Pettigrew.
Through marriage records, old newspaper clippings, and even high school yearbooks, Kessler determined that although Cox previously recalled living with his single mother on the South Side until the age of 6, he was likely shy of 4 years old when she remarried, moving the family to the suburbs shortly thereafter. Cox’s campaign offered a statement from the candidate stating that his stepfather was absent and abusive, and that he considers himself to have been raised solely by his mother.
This exercise makes us a bit uncomfortable. For starters, the Post’s piece likely wouldn’t have been written except for a tip from a highly partisan source. Kessler seemed to share that discomfort and he was admirably transparent in revealing it, something he didn’t have to do. In addition, Cox didn’t fudge on policy expertise, nor did he boast of false military heroism. He claimed a biographical detail that is open to interpretation and, as Kessler acknowledged, vulnerable to the mists of time.
Cox faces an almost insurmountable gap in his gubernatorial campaign. It’s not likely that these fact checks will translate to a difference in voting results. Taken together they tended to undermine his integrity, but the two fact-checking organizations diverged in their ultimate conclusions. PolitiFact took a more Talmudic approach and ended up giving Cox a half share of an untruth that is arguably a truth. The Post chose a less pedantic and more charitable course. Rightly declining to rate Cox a liar, the newspaper assigned his biographical claim with the tag “Not the Whole Story.”
Both examples serve as another reminder that what fact checkers choose to write about, and how they choose to rate it, are far from scientific.