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Inside the Beltway

An Election to Remember: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

If you’re sick of seeing and hearing the presidential candidates duke it out over their indiscretions and worse, you’ve got plenty of company. But as a physicist, I am even more disturbed by the way evidence has taken a back seat to the diatribe — or in the case of Donald Trump, the Tweet — of the moment. The presidential debates, which have drawn record TV audiences, make a compelling case that facts no longer play the vital role they once did.

In years past, the debates were informed, albeit sometimes heated, discussions of the weighty issues facing the country. They were forums in which competing visions and political philosophies were on display. And if a candidate strayed too far from a question, it was the job of the moderator to intervene and get the dialogue back on track.

Should a candidate utter something patently false, the moderator was expected to challenge the speaker. That happened most famously in 1976 when President Gerald Ford said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Max Frankel of the New York Times was moderating the debate and interrupted, “Did I understand you to say, sir, the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence and occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it is a Communist zone?”

Ford tried to recover from his factual error but only succeeded in digging himself an even deeper hole. His miscue, which Frankel highlighted, might well have cost Ford the election.

Scroll forward 40 years, and ponder what we have witnessed in this year’s high-stakes verbal jousting. Donald Trump wins the fairytale contest hands down, but Hillary Clinton has also suffered from the Pinocchio syndrome, although on a far smaller scale.

More troubling, moderators — and journalists more generally — have largely failed to hold the candidates’ feet to the fire. The truth-stretching or, less decorously, lying has become so common that it has birthed a new cottage industry — fact-checking. Evidenced-based arguments have become a vanishing expectation.

The post-debate TV analysis used to revolve around spin room dissection. But this year, it has become a gotcha forum for underscoring how the candidates — particularly Trump — have been able to twist factual threads into whole cloth lies and get away with it.

The visceral response of an ill-informed public has been to paint both candidates with a broad brush of untrustworthiness. Dishonesty might have been the big story of the 2016 election, but in early October, the Washington Post posted a lewd videotape of Donald Trump from 2005. An Access Hollywood hot mic caught him bragging about his sexually aggressive exploits with language so crude it would make Kim Kardashian blush.

Trump’s excuse: “This was locker-room banter, a private conversation that took place many years ago.” There’s nothing like sex and videotape to get the fact-checking juices really flowing. Within days almost a dozen women surfaced, going on the record saying that Trump’s locker room banter was far more than banter. None of that dislodged Trump’s core supporters, who, polls showed, remained fixated on Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails that disappeared from the private server she had used when she was Secretary of State.

Which finally leads me to the issue of polling and some of the bizarre results that illustrate lack of scientific rigor. Let’s start with the easiest one: open online voting that showed Trump thrashing Clinton in the second debate. In that instance, the sample was self-selected. It wasn’t really a poll, even though Trump and Fox News’ Sean Hannity claimed it was.

But what about the Los Angeles Times / University of Southern California tracking poll that consistently showed Trump significantly over-performing relative to other surveys? Trump and his supporters cited it repeatedly.

I did a little digging and found that Nate Cohn of the New York Times had beaten me to it. His October 16, 2016 “Upshot” analysis is a gem and worth a read for anyone who worries about statistics and biased data.

In brief, according to Cohn, the LA Times/USC poll used the same panel of 3,000 voters repeatedly in its frequent surveys. That’s OK for tracking purposes. But the pollsters segmented the panel with granularity so fine that weighted results were vulnerable to significant errors.

One particularly egregious example led Trump not only to claim he was leading in national polls but also to claim he was capturing a sizable fraction of African American voters.

Here’s what Cohn uncovered: “There is a 19-year-old black man in Illinois who … is sure he is going to vote for Donald J. Trump … . In some polls, he’s weighted as much as 30 times more than the average respondent and as much as 300 times more than the least-weighted respondent. Alone, he has been enough to put Mr. Trump in double digits of support among black voters.”

Nate Cohn is a fact-checker. So, too are Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com and the dozen or so women who disputed Trump’s lame locker room excuse for lecherous conceit. This year, it’s clear all of us, especially scientists, need to be fact-checkers.

Donald Trump’s response to a question from moderator Chris Wallace in the final debate underscores that necessity. Trump twice said he would not accept the election results because he believed they were rigged. But the deluge of polls this year — virtually all predicting a Clinton victory — can conclusively negate Trump’s treacherous allegation of massive voter fraud, provided they are scientifically accurate.

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