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It's Increasingly Clear Facts Don't Matter in the Republican Presidential Primary

Contenders in the Republican primary Donald Trump and Ben Carson keep getting caught out telling lies — but rather than getting them in trouble, their outlandish statements are winning them fans.

by Olivia Becker
Nov 25 2015, 4:25pm

Photo by Erik S Lesser/EPA

In case there had been any doubt, the past 72 hours have solidified that facts are not a priority in the current Republican presidential primary race. Despite making a stream of proven false statements in recent days, "outsider" candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson are still at the front of the GOP pack — suggesting the candidates' disavowal of facts could actually be helping more than hurting them in this race.

Trump insisted for the fourth day in a row, at a campaign rally in South Carolina yesterday, that Muslims really did cheer and celebrate in the streets of New Jersey after the September 11, 2001 attacks. On Sunday, when ABC's George Stephanopoulos questioned Trump about his claims, citing numerous reports from police and officials who were there said that this simply did not happen, the reality television star doubled down, insisting that, "It did happen. I saw it." 

The same Sunday Trump defended his version of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11, he tweeted a graphic with false crime statistics saying that 81 percent of white people murdered this year died at the hands of African-Americans. According to the FBI, 82 percent of white homicides were perpetrated by other white people in 2014, not the other way around. The statistics that Trump tweeted were attributed to something called the Crime Statistics Bureau, which does not exist, and the graphic was actually traced back to a white supremacist Twitter account.

Trump's fondness for historical fiction began long before this past weekend. The New York Times reported yesterday how shortly after Trump bought a Virginia golf course in 2009, he ceremoniously dedicated a spot on the golf range to a Civil War battle that never took place. The plaque dedicated to the "River of Blood" is still there, between the 14th and 15th holes. 

But none of these false statements seem to matter much to voters. According to the most recent CBS poll, Trump continues to lead in both of the key battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire. When voters were asked what the their favorite thing about him was, the majority said it was that "he says things others are afraid to say."

Ben Domenech, a Republican commentator and columnist, says that the desire for an outsider candidate, manifested by an all-time low trust in government, has allowed for candidates like Trump and Carson to get away with saying whatever they want "as long as they're viewed as somebody who is also calling BS on the current system."

The only other candidate who seems to be saying whatever they want as much as Donald Trump is Ben Carson. The former neurosurgeon mistakenly claimed on Sunday that Thomas Jefferson helped "craft" the Constitution. Jefferson was not on this side of the Atlantic when the Constitution was written, something that Carson himself acknowledged in his own book on constitutional theory, A More Perfect Union. Another of his tomes, the autobiography Gifted Hands, has also endured multiple false fact accusations.

Related: Is Ben Carson Just Making Stuff Up?

Then on Monday, Carson agreed with Trump and said he saw a video showing crowds of Muslims cheering in New Jersey after September 11 attacks. Hours later, his campaign issued a statement saying that Carson was actually mistaken and "he wasn't really thinking about New Jersey."

"It's not quite clear that reality matters to the electorate right now," said David Brooks, a conservative political commentator for the New York Times, on Meet the Press in September, discussing Republican candidate Carly Fiorina's sudden surge in popularity. "There are some people who are great campaigners and some people that are good in reality, and so far the good in reality people aren't doing so good in the polls."

Related: In First US Republican Debate, 10 Candidates Spar on Immigration, Islamic State, and... Donald Trump

Fiorina rose to the top of the polls after her debate performances in which she insisted she had seen a video showing Planned Parenthood doctors conducting an abortion of a live fetus in order to harvest its organs. Despite it later becoming abundantly clear that no such video existed and Fiorina was clearly lying, she was still able to hold on to her lead for several more weeks.

Of course, this is not the first election in which politicians have taken liberty with the truth — let's not forget that during the 2012 election Michele Bachmann said that the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation, despite there being zero scientific evidence to support that claim — but Domenech thinks this primary race has given the notion of "fact-checking" a whole new meaning. 

"There's a difference between [2012] and the comments you see now," said Domenech, "Where there's a lack of seriousness and lack of engagement in policy." Much of the sparring between candidates in 2012 was over difference of opinions but still, relatively, grounded in facts, he added.

In other words, the leading presidential candidates in 2012 said plenty of controversial and untrue things — but no one tweeted fictional crime statistics from a Neo-Nazi Twitter account, invented fictional Civil War battles or compared women who have abortions to slaveowners.

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928

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