Opinion Article: Fact-checking pre-election political claims

Written by Louis Jacobson, Senior Correspondent at PolitiFact

Unlike most countries, the United States is on a never-ending political treadmill. Today, it’s a year and a half before the 2024 presidential election, and nine months before the first primary votes are cast. Yet the presidential election process is already in full swing.

Not all the potential candidates are officially in the race yet, but the two biggest figures – President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump – are officially running. So are a few other candidates, along with some big candidates, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, expected to announce their candidacies soon.

Because the candidates will be in the primary phase of the campaign for the better part of the year, they are mainly talking to their party’s most ardent supporters at the moment, hoping for their primary votes. This means they are making fairly extreme claims. Reaching out to voters who are more skeptical about their views will have to wait, probably until a year from now.

In one of the first major campaign events of the year, Donald Trump recently appeared in an hour-plus town hall on CNN. He offered a stream of inaccuracies, which we at PolitiFact fact-checked in real time. (We published this article about an hour or so after the event ended, but we were able to use Twitter to post our previous fact-checks within moments of when made claims in the CNN event.) We’ve also fact-checked other major Trump speeches and given extensive coverage to Trump’s legal challenges

As for Biden, we regularly fact-check statements he makes as he carries out his duties as president.

So far, we’ve published 13 rated fact-checks of Biden in 2023 (zero rated True, three Mostly True, four Half True, three Mostly False, three False, and zero Pants on Fire). We’ve also continued to rate Biden’s progress in fulfilling 100 of his campaign promises, which we will continue to do until he leaves the presidency.

One of the patterns we have found during the decade and a half since PolitiFact was founded is that the accuracy of the candidates’ statements tends to decline the closer we get to Election Day. We assume that is because, at least in close races, candidates tend to get nervous and are willing to make more extreme claims when Election Day is near.

But we’ve also written a lot of unrated, explanatory articles about Biden’s policies, including the fight over the debt limit, immigration, how the economy has fared on his watch, progress on expanding the growth of electric vehicles, Biden’s record on oil drilling, and the debate over aid to Ukraine. These types of articles can provide reliable information to readers in cases where the topic is not sufficiently clear-cut to come produce a formal truth rating.

Because PolitiFact is based in Florida, DeSantis’ home state, we have already been covering him for several years, so we have a deep reserve of fact-checks on him. They include five so far this year, plus fact-checks of a major annual speech he gave and a book he published. We have also written explanatory stories about his views on digital currency and the war in Ukraine.

We have also begun to fact-check recent claims by active candidates such as Vivek Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, plus candidates who might soon enter the race, including former Vice President Mike Pence.

Our biggest challenge at this point in the election cycle is that we only have a few people on staff who focus on fact-checking politicians – typically three or four. So it is a challenge for us to keep track of every candidate and to track what they are saying in speeches all over the country and on social media; we have to balance our campaign tracking with everything else going on in the country that needs fact-checking. 

Eventually, we will get into a rhythm – we will write an analysis of a typical “stump” speech by each candidate, covering their most frequently repeated claims – and we will be covering all of the debates and multi-candidate forums to gauge the candidates’ accuracy. As the primaries approach, we expect to go out on the campaign trail in person, as we have in 2016 and 2020, in order to hear the candidates speak directly. That way, we can pick up claims to fact-check that we may not have heard if we’d remained in our offices.

We fully expect the 2024 campaign to be a wild ride – and a lengthy one. But we are excited to be involved, as we have been since 2007. And hopefully what we write will be useful to our readers — who are also voters.