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AP-NORC/USAFacts Poll: Facts missing from American democracy

WASHINGTON, DC – At a time when many Americans say they're struggling to distinguish between fact and fiction, the country is broadly skeptical that facts underlie some of the basic mechanisms of democracy in the United States — from political campaigns to voting choices to the policy decisions made by elected officials.

A meager 9% of Americans believe that campaign messages are usually based on facts, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Opinion Research and USAFacts. Only 14% think policy decisions are often or always fact-based, or that Americans’ voting decisions are rooted in facts.

Reporting by journalists scores slightly better with the public, but not by much: the survey found that only about 2 in 10 Americans believe media reporting is often or always based on facts. Roughly half of Americans think reporting is sometimes based on fact, while about a third say journalists never rely on facts.

Coupled with a finding from the same survey that found many Americans have trouble verifying for themselves whether information is true, the poll paints a picture of a country deeply insecure about separating truth from falsehood.

“Lately, it seems like there’s been a war versus facts and reality,” said Skye Hamm-Oliver, a 44-year-old Democrat in Lewiston, Idaho.

Will Barger, a 32-year-old police officer in rural Missouri, has become increasingly skeptical of the media and voters alike in the past few years. A Republican and former regular viewer of Fox News who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, he’s become disillusioned with the president and the conservative cable channel and now trusts only local media. 

He’s even less trusting in government and policy decisions, keeping his faith mainly in law-enforcement agencies. And he’s skeptical most voters are fact-driven.

“It’s more of a gut decision based on personal belief on a candidate,” Barger said. What matters to most, he said, is "if there’s an R in front of the name or a D in front of the name.”

Overall, 53% of the public thinks voters sometimes cast ballots based on facts, while 32% say they rarely or never do. Hamm-Oliver said voters in her home state of Idaho did so when they voted to approve a ballot measure last year that forced the state to accept the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which had previously been rejected by the state's Republican-controlled legislature.

“But I have friends who’ve gone to vote and said ‘just because that’s a fact, that isn’t all there is,’” she said.

Joan McKee, a 65-year-old insurance broker who lives on the southern New Jersey shore and leans Democratic, said she thinks most decisions involving policy and elections rely only slightly more — at best — on fact than opinion. She says even the public policies of people she supports, including former President Barack Obama, were partly based on ideology over facts.

“They may take the facts and spin them to do whatever they want,” said McKee, arguing there are always choices in policy that are made based on core values. “I think it’s pretty much always been like this.”

McKee’s view is widespread, with 55% of Americans saying policy decisions are sometimes based on fact while 3 in 10 think they rarely are. Republicans are more skeptical than Democrats that public policy is even sometimes fact-driven, with 33% saying it rarely or never is compared to 23% of Democrats.

"If government decision makers aren't looking at government data, then our whole process is flawed," said former Microsoft chief executive and USAFacts founder Steve Ballmer. “You have to look at the data that you have.”

The poll also found a slim majority of Americans, including Republicans and Democrats, saying the president has a lot of sway over information the government provides.

Colleen Michaels thinks facts have nothing to do with policy. “It’s emotional,” the 55-year-old Ohio farmer, who leans Republican, said of policy. “It has nothing to do with facts.”

She cited restrictions on the slaughter of horses to protect against the unauthorized sale of horsemeat. Michaels is mainly a dairy farmer, but she raises draft horses and occasionally would like to kill one and sell it to overseas meat markets. But she’s no longer able to so easily thanks to regulations she considers based on animal-rights hysteria instead of facts.

Michaels also has a jaundiced view of the media based on a personal experience. When she was young, she said, a news outlet falsely reported that a family member shot at some nearby campers. “The media just goes by whatever they want to say,” she said.

Views on the factual nature of news media reporting are especially partisan. While 31% of Democrats say reporting is reliably based in fact, just 10% of Republicans say the same. Among Democrats, another 53% say reporting is sometimes fact-based. By contrast, nearly half of Republicans, 46%, think this is rare.

Hamm-Oliver, the Democrat from Idaho, trusts CNN but not Fox News. She worries, however, that media outlets are increasingly relying on opinion over facts and that those circulate wider among the public.

Of fact and opinion pieces, she said: “They’re starting to blend together.”

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The AP-NORC/USAFacts poll of 1,032 adults was conducted Oct. 15-28 using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.2 percentage points. Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods and later were interviewed online or by phone.

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Online:

AP-NORC Center: http://www.apnorc.org/