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If you’re still trying to catch Trump and Clinton in a lie, you’re missing the point

Donald Trump
Jonathan Drake | Reuters
Donald Trump

If you had a chance to invest or bet on facts and a chance to invest or bet on emotions, which would you choose?

Most of you would probably say "facts." You might even say you'd be willing to go "all in on the truth."

But that would be a bad bet, because as this election is proving better than anything else America and the entire world really is in one of the all-time deepest bear market for facts. Making matters worse is the fact that almost the entire news media is covering and following this election all wrong, precisely because it's hopelessly unaware of how people are getting their information and making their choices in America today.

The role facts play in both the fortunes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is not even tenuous; their effect has been relatively zero. How else can you explain a presumptive GOP presidential nomination for Trump, who has no experience in elected office and spews out counterfactual and contradictory statements with regularity? How else can you explain a presumptive Democratic Party presidential nomination for Clinton, who has a long history of policy flip-flops and is currently under FBI investigation in part for her questionable representations in her State Department email scandal?


"If you add up all the promises any politician makes, the math doesn't work. Hillary Clinton's math doesn't work, Donald's math probably doesn't work. I think you have to listen to their campaign pitches more as symbolic, more as metaphors." -Wilbur Ross, billionaire investor

The answer is not just that emotions dominate our decisions in politics, religion, and romance. That's always been true. But the reason we have two presidential candidates getting so far despite record-high unfavorable polls and dicey documented histories is because facts are worth less than any time in recent memory. Trump and Clinton are the direct result of the long-term crash in the "fact market."

Don't feel bad or ashamed if you're self-aware enough to realize you've fallen into this market trend, too. Even billionaires are susceptible. Just ask billionaire and Trump supporter Wilbur Ross who was on CNBC last week and admitted that his decisions in this election are not really all that based in fact:

"If you add up all the promises any politician makes, the math doesn't work. Hillary Clinton's math doesn't work, Donald's math probably doesn't work. I think you have to listen to their campaign pitches more as symbolic, more as metaphors." — Wilbur Ross (Watch the video clip.)

Why is this happening? To put it in the most CNBC-like terms possible: Facts are a commodity. And because of the internet and the 24/7 instant connection to it via smartphones, we're in a oversupplied market for facts. With so many facts literally at our fingertips, all of us are overwhelmed. We're grasping for emotions to anchor us during this avalanche in the already emotional minefield that is American politics. The result is that facts, even 300-year-old essential facts like the need for vaccines, are in a value decline. If facts were a stock, their share prices would be at a multi-year low.

And now that social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are now the top sources of information for people all over the world, facts are even cheaper compared to emotions. A new study shows that 60 percent of people who share stories on social media don't actually read the story they're sharing, they just have an emotional reaction to a headline and that's it. To be successful in a presidential election, or even as a candidate for dog catcher, you have to be aware of this landscape. The same goes for those of us trying to follow elections intelligently.

You can see how emotion trumps facts in the Democrats sit-in on the House floor over gun legislation. The scene of dozens of members of Congress literally sitting on the floor and chanting is powerful. It doesn't matter that almost no one watching, (and probably a good deal of the protesting members), have no specific idea of what kind of gun-control measure they want to see passed. That factual detail is nothing compared to that visual image. Even if the sit-in only interests and fires up the existing liberal/Democratic Party base, it's successful because, while emotions are more powerful than facts in politics, there is a catch: Emotions do die down over time while facts endure. Thus, a successful politician or political party will realize it has to stoke emotions from time to time to keep their superiority intact. House Speaker Paul Ryan may brush off this sit-in as a "publicity stunt," but what it's really an example of effective emotional political messaging.

Trump has had the advantage in this environment. He's not just successfully tapped into emotions in this campaign since day one with his risible comments about Mexican immigrants, he's expertly continued to stoke them with statement after statement. Emotions have a way of subsiding, facts endure. So if you're riding the tide of emotional and excited voters, you have to keep feeding that beast. The Trump campaign is keenly aware of the "facts crash" and this is why those predicting Trump will "calm and go more mainstream" are so wrong. The crowds embracing Trump talk about how he "tells it like it is." But the truth is, he tells it like they feel. And how a person feels is a lot more important in the way he or she chooses how to vote in an election, whether or not to have that chilli burger, or whether to enter a love affair.

Too many of the people trying to defeat Trump right now are trying to "expose" the facts about him are failing because they're basically trying to bolster the share price for facts by ... increasing the supply. This tactic simply won't work any better than Saudi Arabia pumping out more crude would increase oil prices. (And, believe me, the Saudis have tried!)

But you can't open up any major newspaper or mainstream news site these days without being inundated with article after article and editorial after editorial attacking Trump's statements and trying to present the reader with a trove of facts to disprove and discredit him. News flash: all the "fact checker" and "Pinocchios" the hapless fact bulls have been pumping out are not working, certainly not on the undecided voters who haven't emotionally made up their minds. This is how we must look at all the pieces digging into Trump's and even Clinton's records. They are useless in this emotion bull market/facts market crash. But they keep coming and coming. It's better to look at every "fact based" Trump or Clinton hit piece as the next animal heading for that tasty-looking prey in the La Brea Tar Pits.

This is why the news media was so caught off guard not only by the Trump campaign's success but also by the equally emotion-based Bernie Sanders campaign. But as we head into the general election, it doesn't seem like most of the reporters and pundits have learned any lessons. They continue to underserve their readers and viewers by ignoring an emotional-based analysis of the campaigns.

By contrast, those who are relying on emotional reactions to win this election have a powerful market trend as their friend. I've mentioned some of Trump's successful emoting tactics above. But Clinton isn't devoid of these effective strategies, especially in recent weeks. Her recent pivot to emotion by playing to our fears about Trump being in charge of our military and nuclear codes seems to be working. Also the snark we've seen spike lately on her social media accounts where she pokes fun at Trump seem to have played a role in his recent drop in the polls.

But the Clinton camp and her legion of media supporters are still clearly too much under the impression that a rebound in the "fact market" is just around the corner. This probably comes from a lack of self-awareness that the support for Clinton is also mostly emotion-based. All political support is.

The bigger problem is that you wind up with worthless platitudes like "we're always stronger to together" and "we need to work together to keep our country and our citizens safe."

Sad but true: Snark works better than a notoriously dishonest candidate trying to rattle off facts.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.