Blurring facts, personal attacks reward GOP’s 2016 front-runners

Presidential candidates said what?

The more outrageous the claim, the bigger the bump in the polls? Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have each made eyebrow-raising statements yet continue to gain ground on their competitors. Find out what gave them
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The more outrageous the claim, the bigger the bump in the polls? Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina have each made eyebrow-raising statements yet continue to gain ground on their competitors. Find out what gave them

It doesn’t matter these days in presidential politics if you get the facts right or offend big segments of the electorate.

Doing just that has instead become a surefire way to get a bump in this year’s polls.

Donald Trump got a bounce when he insulted Sen. John McCain’s war record, and again when he suggested that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.”

Ben Carson has been thriving since he suggested voters should not elect a practicing Muslim as president. Carly Fiorina mischaracterized the exact contents of controversial videos depicting Planned Parenthood abortion practices as she climbed into the top tier of Republican candidates.

None of the leading Democratic presidential hopefuls have been embroiled in similar controversies.

What happened to the idea that a president must be credible, let alone judicious and knowledgeable?

Those qualities are still valued. But it’s early October, four months before anyone votes, with more debates still to come. Now is a time when it’s safe to vent and offer full-throated support for the candidate who expresses the frustration that’s been welling up inside for so long.

In this climate, “people are not looking for facts, but an emotional signal, a kinship,” said Kenn Venit, a Hamden, Conn.-based media consultant.

The candidates are enjoying a time-tested tool of mass persuasion. Reality is not always what sells, said Venit. “It’s often the perception of reality,” he said.

Trump leads the GOP field with 23 percent. Carson has 16 percent and Fiorina has 12 percent, according to a RealClearPolitics.com average of polls taken from Sept. 17-28.

Fiorina is the latest to be embraced by fed-up voters. At the Sept. 16 Republican debate, she urged President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who is seeking the presidency, to “watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.’”

That exact scene is not on an Aug. 19 undercover video, one of several from the Center for Medical Progress, which opposes abortion, that shows Planned Parenthood employees discussing using fetal tissue for research. Fiorina has persisted in insisting the gruesome scene she described is available.

“That scene absolutely does exist,” she told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sept. 27.

Fiorina’s campaign responded to questions about her claims by sending over a piece from The Federalist, a conservative magazine, supporting Fiorina’s assertions.

“The videos Carly Fiorina referenced do indeed exist, and they reveal the barbaric realities of the abortion industry,” the article says.

Politifact, a nonpartisan fact-checker, rated Fiorina’s statement “mostly false.” It said the videos’ originators “added footage of an aborted fetus on what appears to be an examination table, and its legs are moving” in one of the videos.

“But Fiorina makes it sound as if the footage shows what Planned Parenthood is alleged to have done. In fact, the stock footage was added to the video to dramatize its content,” Poltifact found.

Mostly false.

Politifact’s assessment of Fiorina’s claims about videos depicting Planned Parenthood practices

None of this appears to have hurt Fiorina. She went from deep in the Republican pack, at 5 percent in a late August Quinnipiac University poll, to 12 percent after the September debate.  

Surging at least as much is Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who emerged in early 2013 as a favorite of evangelical white Christian voters.

Carson told “Meet the Press” on Sept. 20: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

Even some of his Republican rivals criticized and questioned the comment. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas noted that “the Constitution specifies that there be no religious test for public office, and I am a constitutionalist.”

Carson subsequently clarified a bit, saying he would be open to a Muslim who renounced radical Islam. But he and his supporters kept pressing the idea.

I could never support a candidate for President of the United States that was Muslim and had not renounced the central tenant of Islam: Sharia Law.

Ben Carson in a Sept. 21 Facebook post

“The media, the left, and even some fellow Republicans rushed to condemn me,” Carson said this week in a fundraising appeal. He cited some who urged him to drop out of the race.

“How ridiculous,” Carson said. “The Judeo-Christian values upon which America was built allowed us to become the greatest force for good on the planet. We shouldn’t give them away in the name of political correctness.”

Carson is now in second place behind Trump in most national polls.

“There is a siege mentality for many of these (Christian right) voters, and part of that siege is what they see their own government doing to traditional Judeo-Christian practices, as well as the lack of concern that is also shown by the government regarding Islam,” said Christopher Budzisz, director of the Loras College Poll in Iowa.

Trump can understand the outrage because he, too, has survived blowups over his comments.

He was still new to the presidential process in July when he said of McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five and a half years as a Vietnam prisoner of war, “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, I hate to tell you.”

Trump was at 12 percent in the CNN/ORC poll in late June. In the days after the comment, he was up to 18 percent.

The real estate mogul was prospering because, as are Carson and Fiorina, he was “playing to a base that’s frustrated and disgruntled,” said Keith Appell, a senior adviser to CARLY for America, a super PAC supporting Fiorina. “And a lot of Republican primary voters are still furious with McCain because of immigration.”

McCain has led the fight for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Trump has championed building a wall and trying to deport anyone in this country illegally.

Trump’s comments about women have done little to dilute his popularity. Not only was there his “blood” remark about Kelly, but he later made a disparaging comment about Fiorina’s appearance. She offered a terse response in the September debate.

Trump’s still the front-runner.

The challenge for these candidates comes as voters get more serious about selecting their next president. Carson, Trump, Fiorina and others will have to expand their appeal beyond fed-up conservatives, and the more their credibility is questioned, the tougher that will get. Gallup found in May that half of Americans regard themselves as pro-abortion rights, while 19 percent say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.

Sixty percent in a Gallup survey in June said they would vote for a qualified candidate who happened to be Muslim. “Carson’s sentiment on the issue is out of sync with the American public,” said Frank Newport, the Gallup Poll editor-in-chief.

The candidates of outrage are going to have to show they can attract the less active, less vocal voting bloc that seeks gravitas and governing ability. If, of course, they’re still willing to take a look at Republicans.

“To get to the White House, Republicans need to be the big tent party,” said Sarah Chamberlain, chief operating officer of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a center-right group. The controversial comments, she said, “certainly hurt the Republican brand.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid