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How Much Do Fact-Checkers Matter?

Media “fact-checkers” held President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney accountable for their campaign promises and, in the process, had a major effect on the 2012 elections.

“Mostly false” — that’s how political strategists might describe such an assertion.

In interviews with veterans of the Romney campaign and other GOP operatives, as well as Democratic strategists and those who were active on behalf of team Obama, there was a broad consensus that the analysis produced by the journalist fact-checkers didn’t matter and had no material effect on the presidential campaign. They arrived at this conclusion despite the serial bickering the two campaigns engaged in over the fact-checkers’ work.

“No matter if you worked for Obama or Romney, neither side really cared what the fact-checkers had to say. More often than not, that’s because the fact-checkers often practice voodoo fact-checking. I’d give them all a rating of true but false,” a senior Republican official said.

“I think they had no meaningful effect,” added a Democratic strategist who was active in the presidential campaign. “They didn’t cause the campaigns to change course from their strategies and the things that were egregiously wrong broke through because of what the networks did in the reporting on it. I think the fact-checkers don’t mean much.”

The influence of the media fact-checker might be right up there with newspaper endorsements, political operatives on both sides of the aisle suggest. But they’re hardly going away, having already transitioned from delivering verdicts on presidential campaign rhetoric and policy proposals to the debate over the fiscal cliff and the claims and counter-claims being traded by House Republicans and the Obama administration.

In reviewing the work of the fact-checkers during the 2012 election cycle, Romney found himself under fire more often than Obama, at least according to a roundup of rulings issued by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler and the Tampa Bay Times’ PolitiFact.

Kessler fact-checked Obama 76 times and Romney 68 times. But on Kessler’s scale of one to four Pinocchios — four Pinocchios being the worst rating he gives for rhetoric or a policy — Romney fared worse than Obama, receiving a total of 172 Pinocchios to Obama’s 162 and receiving a dozen four Pinocchio ratings, twice as many as Obama. The president earned an average of about 2.1 Pinocchios from Kessler, while Romney averaged 2.4.

Similarly, Politifact checked Obama 121 times to Romney’s 113. But on its scale, Romney again fared worse, earning 11 “true” verdicts to Obama’s 19, 15 “mostly true” rulings to Obama’s 31, 37 “half true” decisions to Obama’s 41, 20 “mostly false” verdicts to Obama’s 15, 19 “false” rulings to Obama’s 12 and 11 “pants on fire” decisions to Obama’s 3.

“Their selective reasoning or arbitrary standards left much to be desired,” said Kevin Madden, who advised Romney on communications strategy and traveled with him constantly during the final months of the campaign. “If some of these fact-checkers were around in 1984, they would have given [President Ronald] Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ spot a ‘pants on fire’ rating because, well, somewhere as that ad is playing it’s not morning but instead it’s nighttime.”

But despite Madden’s criticism, he doesn’t think the fact-checkers’ work had much influence. “They just became another layer of sound in an already noisy conversation,” he said.

In an interview with Roll Call, Kessler said he wasn’t aiming to “change the behavior” of the campaigns but rather wanted to inform the voters. On that front he believes he was successful, although he conceded that the campaigns — and politicians generally — ignore the fact-checkers “if they think their message is effective.”

Still, Kessler noted that each of the campaigns had communications aides specifically designated to deal with fact-checkers, and he said there were times when his analysis resulted in the candidates making slight adjustments to their rhetoric or ad scripts, though not their overall messaging strategy. Kessler said he tries to focus his fact-checks on issues that are “black and white, easy to prove” and shies away from analyzing philosophical opinions.

“When numbers don’t add up, it’s a great fact-check. Other times it gets really subtle and difficult,” Kessler said.

He agreed that the media fact-checker is more of a fixture now compared to four years ago. Kessler said that while they were around during Obama’s first presidential run, journalists and media outlets made more of an effort to fact-check claims by the candidates during the 2012 cycle, particularly regarding what they said during the multiple presidential debates.

Democratic strategist Phil Singer, who worked on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, said that when fact-checkers stick to the knowable subjects based on numbers and arithmetic, they can have an effect on a political campaign.

But Singer suggested that they lose their credibility when they move beyond that scope and attempt to referee claims based on philosophy or moral values.

“Fact-checkers are at their best when they are vetting a claim that is either true or false. When they address claims whose accuracy lies somewhere in the middle, they lose their significance and become punditry,” Singer said.

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