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FactChecking the Democratic Debate

The candidates stretched the facts on unemployment, wages and Social Security, among other topics.


We found several falsehoods and misleading claims in the Democratic candidates’ first debate:

  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton revised her earlier statement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, claiming that she said she “hoped” it would be a “gold standard.” At the time, she said it was a gold standard.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed that his plan to lift the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes would extend the program’s finances and expand benefits. He neglected to mention that the new taxes would not be used to calculate benefits for those paying them, a break from historical practice.
  • Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley claimed that “70 percent of us are earning the same, or less than we were 12 years ago.” Not true. Average weekly earnings for rank-and-file workers are up 5.8 percent.
  • Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said that his state “had the biggest drop of the unemployment rate over my four budgets of all but one state.” Actually, four states had larger percentage point drops, and 10 states had larger percentage declines over his tenure.
  • Sanders claimed that African American youth unemployment was 51 percent, but that figure pertains to underemployment, which includes those working part-time and looking for full-time work.
  • Clinton claimed that “we lose 90 people a day from gun violence.” That’s true, but only a third of those deaths are from homicides.
  • Sanders wrongly said that the U.S. had “more wealth and income inequality than any other country.” The U.S. ranks 42nd in income inequality and 16th in terms of wealth held by the top 1 percent.
  • Clinton said that using a personal email account “was allowed by the State Department.” It was, but federal rules also required Clinton to turn over her emails before she left office. She did so nearly two years after she left.


The Democratic candidates for president — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Sen. Jim Webb — gathered in Las Vegas for their first debate on Oct. 13, hosted by CNN and Facebook.

Clinton on the Trans-Pacific Partnership

Clinton revised her earlier position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between 12 Pacific Rim countries, claiming that she merely said she “hoped” it would be a “gold standard.” But her earlier support was more unequivocal.

The topic arose when debate moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton if some of her recent position changes were tied to political expediency, and he specifically referenced Clinton’s recent decision to oppose the TPP.

“You supported his trade deal dozens of times. You even called it the ‘gold standard.’ Now, suddenly, last week, you’re against it,” Cooper said. “Will you say anything to get elected?”

Clinton said that over the course of her career, her values and principles have remained consistent, though some positions have evolved as she “absorb[s] new information.”

“You know, take the trade deal,” Clinton said. “I did say, when I was secretary of state, three years ago, that I hoped it would be the gold standard. It was just finally negotiated last week, and in looking at it, it didn’t meet my standards. My standards for more new, good jobs for Americans, for raising wages for Americans. And I want to make sure that I can look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say, ‘this will help raise your wages.’ And I concluded I could not.”

But Clinton didn’t add the “hoped it would be” qualifier when she made the initial comment about the TPP in 2012.

“This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field,” Clinton remarked in Adelaide, Australia, on Nov. 15, 2012. “And when negotiated, this agreement will cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and build in strong protections for workers and the environment.”

Two days later, in Singapore, Clinton again sang the praises of the TPP.

“The so-called TPP will lower barriers, raise standards, and drive long-term growth across the region,” Clinton said. “It will cover 40 percent of the world’s total trade and establish strong protections for workers and the environment. Better jobs with higher wages and safer working conditions, including for women, migrant workers and others too often in the past excluded from the formal economy will help build Asia’s middle class and rebalance the global economy.”

We should note that Clinton’s comments were made, in part, to promote the administration’s ongoing negotiations of the TPP.

Clinton tempered her language in support of the TPP after leaving her post as secretary of state, and moving toward a run for the presidency. As she wrote in her 2014 book “Hard Choices“: “Because TPP negotiations are still ongoing, it makes sense to reserve judgment until we can evaluate the final proposed agreement. It’s safe to say that the TPP won’t be perfect — no deal negotiated among a dozen countries ever will be — but its higher standards, if implemented and enforced, should benefit American businesses and workers.”

Earlier this month, Clinton took a formal position against the TPP.

“I still believe in the goal of a strong and fair trade agreement in the Pacific as part of a broader strategy both at home and abroad, just as I did when I was Secretary of State,” Clinton said in a released statement. “I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made. But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.”

Clinton is free to change her mind based on “new information,” as she put it. And some of the details of the trade deal, which was negotiated in secret, likely changed over time. But Clinton wasn’t qualifying her support for the plan back in 2012. She didn’t say she “hoped” it would be a “gold standard.” She said it was a gold standard.

Sanders and Social Security

Sanders claimed Social Security’s finances could be extended and benefits expanded by simply taxing incomes above the current cap of $118,500.

Sanders: And the way you expand [Social Security] is by lifting the cap on taxable incomes so that you do away with the absurdity of a millionaire paying the same amount into the system as somebody making $118,000. You do that, Social Security is solvent until 2061 and you can expand benefits.

Sanders is referring to legislation he has sponsored, the “Social Security Expansion Act.” It would increase future benefit payments and partially pay for that by applying employment and self-employment payroll tax not only to earnings up to the current cap, but also over $250,000, and by levying a new 6.2 percent tax on investment income over $200,000 for a single person or $250,000 for married couples filing jointly, with no upper limit on the amount to be taxed.

The chief actuary of the Social Security system analyzed the latest version of Sanders’ proposal last March, and concluded that it would indeed extend the life of the Social Security trust funds to 2065 (not 2061).

But Sanders failed to mention two key points.

First, those subjected to the higher taxes would see no benefit from them. Unlike current payroll taxes, the new levies would not be used as a basis for calculating future benefits for those paying them, a sharp break from historical practice.

Second, benefits would eventually have to be cut anyway.

The actuary estimated that under current law the system could pay only 77 percent of scheduled benefits starting in 2033. Under the Sanders plan to tax the affluent, expanded benefits could be paid for 32 years longer, but then Social Security could support only 88 percent of promised benefits.

O’Malley’s Mangled Wage Statistic — Again

O’Malley repeated a dubious talking point that we’ve criticized before:

O’Malley: [O]ur middle class is shrinking. Our poor families are becoming poorer, and 70 percent of us are earning the same, or less than we were 12 years ago.

As we reported in June, O’Malley is citing outdated figures that don’t reflect a spike in real wages and earnings that has taken place over the past year or so. He bases the claim on a study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute that was current only through 2014.

Using the most current figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “real” (inflation-adjusted) average weekly earnings of rank-and-file, non-supervisory workers were 2.2 percent higher in August than they were a year earlier, and 5.8 percent higher than they were in August 2003 — the 12-year period O’Malley specified.

Chafee and Rhode Island Unemployment

In his introductory remarks, Chafee claimed that Rhode Island had a larger drop in the unemployment rate than every state but Nevada while he was governor. That’s not correct for his total time in office.

Chafee: As governor, I came in at the depths of the recession and we turned my state around. Rhode Island had the biggest drop of the unemployment rate over my four budgets of all but one state. It happens to be Nevada, where we’re having this debate.

We contacted a spokeswoman for Chafee’s campaign to get an exact timeframe for his claim, but we didn’t hear back.

Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 11.2 percent in January 2011 when Chafee came into office, and it was 6.5 percent in January 2015 when he left office. That’s a decline of 4.7 percentage points and, perhaps more important, a percentage decrease of 42 percent.

Nevada’s unemployment rate dropped 6.5 percentage points over that time period. But California, North Carolina and Florida, with declines of 5 percentage points, 4.9 percentage points and 4.8 percentage points, respectively, also had larger declines than Rhode Island. So four states, not one, had larger drops based solely on percentage points.

Furthermore, when looking at the percentage decline, which may be a better way of comparing declines between states, 10 states, including Nevada, had a larger percentage decrease in the unemployment rate, and two states had a percentage decrease roughly the same as Rhode Island’s.

Sanders Exaggerates Youth Unemployment

As he has done many times before, Sanders overstated the unemployment rate for black and Hispanic youths.

Sanders: African American youth unemployment is 51 percent. Hispanic youth unemployment is 36 percent. It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.

We have written about this once before. Sanders gets his figures from a June report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. But the report clearly labels those figures as the rate of underemployment, not unemployment.

The report said “51.3 percent of young black high school graduates are underemployed, compared with 36.1 percent of young Hispanic high school grads and 33.8 percent of white high school grads.” That was the average for a 12-month period, ending in March.

EPI says it arrived at those numbers by using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of underemployment, known as the U-6, for high school graduates ages 17 to 20 who are not enrolled in further schooling. The U-6 includes not just those officially counted as unemployed, but also discouraged workers, those marginally attached to the labor market and part-time workers who want to be working more.

BLS does not publish data for the 17-to-20 age group, so we could not verify EPI’s report. It does, however, provide data for high school graduates ages 16 to 24 years old who are not enrolled in further schooling. In September, the unemployment rate for this age group was 24 percent for African Americans, 11.6 percent for Hispanics and 10.7 percent for whites.

Clinton on Gun Violence 

In talking about the need for stronger gun control, Clinton said: “I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.” Annual gun deaths do average about 90 people a day, but only a third of those are homicides.

Most gun deaths are suicides — a violent act, but not a crime, as some voters may think Clinton’s claim implied.

According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were a total of 33,636 firearm deaths in 2013. That’s 92 per day for the year. Sixty-three percent of them, or 21,175, were suicides. Homicides totaled 11,208, and the rest were unintentional discharges (505), legal intervention/war (467) and undetermined (281).

Sanders Wrong on U.S. Inequality Ranking

Sanders doubled down on a bogus claim that the income and wealth gaps between the affluent and the poor are larger in the United States than anywhere else:

Sanders: We should not be the country that has … more wealth and income inequality than any other country.

This is simply false.

When we first criticized Sanders for a similar claim back on May 28, he at least qualified it by saying U.S. inequality was the widest of any “major” country. As we said in May, that’s true only if Sanders excludes nations such as Russia, Turkey and Brazil from his definition of “major.”

But in the debate, Sanders substituted “any” for “major,” and turned what we charitably called an exaggeration into a flat-out falsehood.

We found that the U.S. ranked 42nd in income inequality using the “Gini index,” a widely used measure of inequality, according to the World Bank.

And as for wealth, the U.S. ranked 16th in the share of wealth held by the richest 1 percent, out of the 46 economies studied. Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Brazil were among those whose top 1 percent held more of their nations’ wealth. That was according to the 2014 “Global Wealth Databook.”

Update, Oct. 14: After this article was posted, we also reviewed the 2015 edition of the Global Wealth Databook, which was published earlier in October by Credit Suisse. It tells much the same story as the 2014 edition.

The share of wealth held by the top 1 percent in the U.S. has actually declined a bit — to an estimated 37.3 percent, down from 38.4 percent the year before.

This time the U.S. ranks 11th among the 37 nations listed, behind Russia, Thailand, Indonesia, India, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, China, Czech Republic and Israel. China and Israel moved ahead of the U.S. on this year’s list.

Furthermore, seven nations that ranked higher than the U.S. in 2014 are not included in this year’s edition. They are: Turkey, Hong Kong (which we are including as a “nation” for convenience even though the former British colony is now a special administrative region of China), Philippines, Egypt, Peru, Malaysia and Argentina. Since wealth concentrations don’t change quickly, it is safe to assume that most, if not all, of these would still rank ahead of the U.S. had they been included in the 2015 edition.

Clinton’s Emails 

When asked about her unusual email arrangement as secretary of state, Clinton said, “What I did was allowed by the State Department.” That’s not the full story.

Clinton conducted government business exclusively using a personal email account (hdr22@clintonemail.com), and those emails were stored on a private server.

As we have written before, the State Department and the Clinton campaign have cited a National Archives and Records Administration rule issued in 2009 that said federal agencies that allow the use of personal emails must preserve them “in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system.” So personal emails were allowed.

But federal rules also required Clinton to preserve her work emails “at the end of the Secretary’s tenure or sooner if necessary.” She did not turn over copies of her emails to the State Department until Dec. 5, 2014 — nearly two years after she left office on Feb. 1, 2013.

Also, whether the State Department allowed it or not, Clinton’s decision “to conduct all e-mail correspondence through a private e-mail network, using a non-.gov address, is inconsistent with long-established policies and practices under the Federal Records Act and NARA regulations governing all federal agencies,” according to congressional testimony of Jason R. Baron, a former director of litigation at the National Archives, who is now a lawyer at Drinker Biddle.

— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore


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