By now many folks know that in Grundy on Thursday evening, Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe squared off in the first gubernatorial debate of the election season.
Somewhat behind the scenes that day, another mini-drama unfolded, of which most people were probably unawre. That was a blizzard of McAuliffe-bashing press releases issued by the Youngkin campaign.
Between 7 and 9 p.m. Thursday, Youngkin’s staff emailed 14 different anti-McAuliffe screeds on just about every issue imaginable. Those included abortion, vaccine mandates, crime, economic growth, employment and more.
It was one rhetorical bomb after another, dropped (on average) at 8.5 minute intervals. The label “FACT” or FACT CHECK” appears in the subject line of all but one.
In 26 years watching Virginia politics, I can’t recall such a barrage. That rate’s enough to leave you wondering whether someone has spiked the Youngkin campaign water cooler with Adderall. (My inbox received zero pre- or post-debate salvos from the McAuliffe campaign.)
And aside from that, at least some of Youngkin’s claims look like atrocious duds, unsupported by the “facts” they cite. We’ll delve into some of the most obvious misrepresentations below.
I queried the University of Virginia’s guru of politics, Larry Sabato, about that press-release storm. He chalked it up to social media’s increasing influence on modern politics.
You can summarize that more or like this: A lie can now travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.
“Before social media arrived on the scene, it was very difficult to do this kind of thing minute-by-minute. Now that social media is a central part of our lives, every campaign believes it must bring out every gun available, even if a tank is used to squash a small bug,” Sabato told me in an email.
He said he didn’t evaluate the Youngkin press releases. But watching Twitter he witnessed their effects.
“It guarantees that [Youngkin’s] arguments are received and, in most cases, reported in some form. Their party base absorbs a lot of it through the campaign’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. It also has a galvanizing effect on the base and their own staff, communicating that McAuliffe will be able to ‘get away with’ nothing. To repeat myself, it also reinforces that this isn’t just a campaign, it is a crusade — war by other means.”
Communications technology is hardly finished advancing, of course. So all of the above suggests that we’ll see more of this in the future rather than less. In other words, the cost of new tech may be a forever-increasing stream of untruths and misstatements in politics and other realms.
Let’s consider just a couple of those from the Youngkin campaign. Campaign spokesman Devin O'Malley declined to discuss them on the record.
One of the releases is headlined “FACT: Virginia Fell Behind Its Competitors Under McAuliffe’s Policies.” The sub-headline says, “McAuliffe’s pitiful record is nothing to brag about.”
The first claim on that document is that Virginia suffered a net loss of 2,965 jobs between December 2013 — the month before McAuliffe took office — and December 2020.
Here’s the flaw in that logic: McAuliffe left office in January 2018, nearly three years before the end of that data set. It appears the Youngkin campaign expanded the time range for the purpose of blaming McAuliffe for unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Could that be any more dishonest?
Here are the facts, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
In January 2014 — the month McAuliffe was sworn in as governor — there were 4,028,612 workers employed in Virginia. In December 2018 — McAuliffe’s last full month in office — Virginia employment totaled 4,228,692 workers. McAuliffe’s record shows a net gain of 228,080 Virginia jobs, not a drop of nearly 3,000.
In January 2014, Virginia’s count of unemployed workers stood at 227,687. By December 2018, the number had plunged to 126,431. In other words, the number of jobless workers dropped by 101,256 during McAuliffe’s tenure.
In January 2014, Virginia’s unemployment rate was 5.3%. By December 2018, the unemployment rate was 2.9%.
Another dubious assertion leads off the Youngkin press release on crime. It purports that Virginia’s murder rate increased 43% during McAuliffe’s previous term as governor. At least this time around, the Youngkin campaign considered the correct time frame, and cited murders per 100,000 Virginia residents between 2014 and 2017.
The Youngkin document asserts the raw numbers were 4.05 in 2014 and 5.37 in 2017. The problem is, assuming those are correct, they don’t calculate to a 43% jump.
The actual increase is substantially lower — and even that offers a distorted picture because of a mathematical principle known as a the law of small numbers. You have to be careful putting much faith in rate increases calculated off tiny bases.
Look at it this way: If you have one apple and somebody gives you another, the gain is 100%. But if somebody gave you the same apple when you already had 100, the increase is 1%, even though you were gifted the exact same number of apples.
That’s one of the reasons behind the old adage, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Finally, we’ll look at the Youngkin howler headlined, “FACT: Youngkin is the Most Pro-Vaccine Candidate in the Race.”
It trashes McAuliffe for not wearing a mask on a recent Amtrak ride and for reversing his position on vaccine mandates. In the spring, both Youngkin and McAuliffe opposed mandates. But McAuliffe changed his position on Aug. 23.
The news release makes no mention of that date. It was the same day the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted formal approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. That kind of makes a difference.
Meanwhile, just last week, Virginia posted 25,370 new COVID cases.
Those facts lead us to some the key questions in this election-season.
Who would you prefer as governor? A candidate who’s willing to change his mind based on the most up-do-date science, even if the flip exposes him to political attack?
Or a politician who’s left his blinders on, and refuses to change his position when the facts do?
Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: