Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Fourth Democratic Debate

Sunday showdown in South Carolina: Democrats highlight differences on health care, guns and more.


The three Democratic presidential candidates made misleading claims on health care, energy and guns.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders said his health care plan wouldn’t “tear up” the Affordable Care Act. But he would replace the ACA with an entirely new public insurance system.
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said health care costs were “the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.” Costs have continued to go up, not down, but they have been growing at historically low rates.
  • Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said Obama “made us more energy independent.” But the rise in domestic oil production, and drop in imports, is due mainly to advances in drilling technology, not government policy.
  • Clinton said 1-in-3 black men “may well end up going to prison.” That’s outdated. It’s a projection based on the 2001 incarceration rate for black males that assumed the rate would remain unchanged. In fact, it has declined.
  • Clinton said Sanders once “publicly sought someone to run in a primary against” President Obama, while Sanders responded that he “worked as hard as I could to see that [Obama] was reelected.” Sanders did voice some support for a contested primary to push Obama to the left, but there is no evidence he actively sought out an opposition candidate.
  • Clinton claimed that Sanders “voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak,” when he voted to allow guns in checked baggage only. She also said he voted for immunity for gun makers and sellers, who had a “total pass.” The legislation included exceptions where lawsuits could still occur.


The Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina, for the debate, broadcast by NBC.

Sanders’ Health Plan

In a lengthy back-and-forth between Sanders and Clinton over his health care plan, Sanders said he wasn’t going to “tear up the Affordable Care Act” but instead “move on top of that” to a single-payer, universal health care system. But his plan actually calls for replacing current forms of insurance, including private insurance and Medicaid, with a new universal plan administered by the federal government.

Here’s that exchange:

Clinton: Now, there are things we can do to improve it, but to tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction.

Sanders: It is — it is absolutely inaccurate. … No one is tearing this up, we’re going to go forward. … We’re not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act. I helped write it. But we are going to move on top of that to a Medicaid-for-all system.

Sanders’ has referred to his plan as Medicare for all, not Medicaid. The last bill he introduced on the matter was the American Health Security Act of 2013, but hours before the debate, his campaign released a new plan, which says it would be “federally administered,” not state-based as the 2013 bill proposed.

Either way, the plan calls for a new universal health care system in which everyone would have health coverage, paid for with tax dollars, not insurance premiums. Insurance as we know it would change to “a single, public insurance system,” as the plan says. “As a patient, all you need to do is go to the doctor and show your insurance card,” says Sanders’ plan. “Bernie’s plan means no more copays, no more deductibles and no more fighting with insurance companies when they fail to pay for charges.”

Sanders claimed that “we’re not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act,” but actually his plan would replace the ACA. There would be no more private insurance marketplaces with tax credits and subsidies, or a Medicaid expansion. Instead, everyone would have the same, public insurance.

Clinton’s remarks may have left the impression that Sanders would get rid of the ACA first, and then try to replace it, but that’s not how it would likely be done.

Sanders went on to claim that his plan would “lower the cost of health care for middle class families by 5,000 bucks.” That’s based on an estimate done for the campaign that would pertain specifically to a family of four with employer-sponsored insurance earning $50,000 a year.

Gerald Friedman, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, did the analysis, which says our family of four paid $4,955 in insurance premiums through an employer, the average paid by employees for a family plan in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Plus, the analysis figures the family paid $1,318 in deductibles, the average for single plans with deductibles in 2015.

If the family paid that much in deductibles out of pocket, the total yearly expense would be $6,273. Under Sanders’ plan, this family would only pay a 2.2 percent tax — which he calls a “premium” — of $466 on taxable income. (That’s assuming a standard deduction and personal exemption totaling $28,800 for our hypothetical family.)

Of course, some families with employer-sponsored insurance pay less than the average employee contribution, and some have lower deductibles or don’t spend enough out of pocket to reach the full deductible. Their potential savings would be less. Others pay more for their current premiums and would have higher estimated savings.

Employers may have different reactions to the new plan as well. They no longer would pay toward insurance premiums, but instead would pay a 6.2 percent payroll tax for all employees to help fund the public insurance system. They could pass along that cost to their employees.

The rest of the money for Sanders’ plan comes largely from taxing those earning more than $250,000 a year, through higher marginal tax rates (as high as 52 percent on income over $10 million), taxing capital gains the same as income from wages, limiting deductions and increasing the estate tax.

Clinton Off on Health Care Costs

On health care, Clinton said costs were “the lowest they’ve been in 50 years.” That’s the rate of growth in health care spending — costs have continued to go up, not down, but they have been growing at historically low rates.

Clinton: We now have driven costs down to the lowest they’ve been in 50 years. Now we’ve got to get individual costs down. That’s what I’m planning to do.

President Obama also boasted of the low rate of growth in health care spending in his State of the Union address on Jan. 12, as he has done several times in the past. Clinton flubbed the talking point, saying that the costs were the lowest, not the rate of growth.

From 2009 to 2012, total national health care spending grew at rates around 4 percent per year. The journal Health Affairs noted in 2012 that the growth rates were the lowest since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services started compiling the National Health Expenditure Accounts data in 1960. The growth rate even went as low as 2.9 percent in 2013, before rising to 5.3 percent for 2014 (see Table 1).

Clinton said that “we now have driven costs down,” but economists say the cause of the slowdown was mainly the economy — not the actions of politicians or the Affordable Care Act. A 2013 analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation said that “much of the decline in health spending growth in recent years was fully expected given what was happening more broadly in the economy.” And in 2014, CMS’ experts said the ACA’s impact had been “minimal.”

O’Malley on Energy Independence 

O’Malley gave President Obama too much credit when he said he “made us more energy independent.”

It is true, as we’ve reported periodically, that the U.S. is producing more oil domestically and importing less from abroad during Obama’s time in office. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates net U.S. imports of petroleum in the last three months of 2015 were 62 percent lower than in the three months before Obama first took office.

And in the first 11 months of last year, the U.S. imported only 24.3 percent of the petroleum and refined products that it consumed — down sharply from 57 percent in 2008.

But as we’ve also reported often, the U.S. oil boom is due mainly to advances in drilling technology rather than to any change in government policy. The decline in dependency on imports actually began in 2006, after peaking at 60.3 percent the year before.

O’Malley’s broader point was that “to move us to a 100 percent clean, electric energy grid by 2050” would require more than Obama’s energy policy.

O’Malley proposes a federal cap on carbon emissions, higher royalties and emissions fees for fossil fuel companies currently drilling on federal lands, and expanded Environmental Protection Agency regulations to curb emissions from large sources beyond electric power plants, among other things.

Clinton’s Outdated Incarceration Stat

In answering a question about police shootings of young black men, Clinton said, “One out of three African American men may well end up going to prison. That’s the statistic.”

But that statistic is outdated — a 2003 projection based on 2001 incarceration rate data. And since then, the incarceration rate for black males has declined.

The Clinton campaign did not get back to us when we asked for the source of her claim. However, she is likely referring to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project that said, “If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males — compared to one of every seventeen white males.”

That report generated stories such as one in the Huffington Post that carried the headline, “1 In 3 Black Males Will Go To Prison In Their Lifetime, Report Warns.”

But the Sentencing Project, which advocates for “reforms in sentencing policy,” did not produce that 1-in-3 estimate. It was taken word for word from a 2011 report called “Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration.” And that 2011 report based its estimate on an August 2003 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The BJS report projected that 32.2 percent of black males born in 2001 “are expected to go to prison during their lifetime, if current incarceration rates remain unchanged.”

But the incarceration rate for black males has changed. In fact, it has declined since 2001.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics annually produces reports on incarceration rates by race. The incarceration rate for black males was 3,535 per 100,000, or 3.5 percent, in 2001. (See Table 16.) The most recent report put that figure at 2,724 per 100,000 black males, or 2.7 percent, in 2014. (See Table 10.)

This is not to discount Clinton’s larger point that black males are overrepresented in state and federal prisons.

The latest BJS report said, “On December 31, 2014, black males had higher imprisonment rates than prisoners of other races or Hispanic origin within every age group. Imprisonment rates for black males were 3.8 to 10.5 times greater at each age group than white males and 1.4 to 3.1 times greater than rates for Hispanic males.”

But the 1-in-3 statistic that she passed off as a fact is outdated and is not based on current incarceration rates.

Did Sanders Call Obama ‘Weak’?

Clinton said Sanders once called President Obama “weak” and “disappointing” and “publicly sought someone to run in a primary against [him]” while Sanders responded that he needed  to “set the record right” that he “worked as hard as I could to see that [Obama] was reelected.” As is the case in many political exchanges, some context is needed.

In 2011, Sanders did voice some support for a contested primary for Obama, as a means to push the president further to the left, but there is no evidence he actively sought out an opposition candidate. Sanders ultimately publicly supported Obama’s reelection campaign.

The issue of Sanders’ allegiance to Obama arose during a debate discussion about differences between the two Democratic candidates on the best way to regulate Wall Street.

“Well, there’s no daylight on the basic premise that there should be no bank too big to fail and no individual too powerful to jail. We agree on that,” Clinton said. “But where we disagree is the comments that Sen. Sanders has made that don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the great recession.

“Sen. Sanders called him weak, disappointing,” Clinton said. “He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama. Now, I personally believe that President Obama’s work to push through the Dodd-Frank bill and then to sign it was one of the most important regulatory schemes we’ve had since the 1930s. So I’m going to defend Dodd-Frank and I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results.”

Asked to respond, Sanders said, “First of all, set the record right. In 2006 when I ran for the Senate, Sen. Barack Obama was kind enough to campaign for me. [In] 2008, I did my best to see that he was elected and in 2012, I worked as hard as I could to see that he was reelected. He and I are friends. We’ve worked together on many issues. We have some differences of opinion.”

The comments in question from Sanders came during a July 22, 2011, appearance on the Thom Hartmann radio program, and we first wrote about them when they were raised by O’Malley in the Nov. 6 MSNBC Democratic forum.

Although Sanders endorsed and supported Obama in the 2008 general election, Sanders had several public disagreements with Obama during the president’s first term, with Sanders arguing that the president was too willing to cut deals with Republicans. Notably, in 2010, Sanders railed for more than eight hours on the Senate floor against a deal brokered between Obama and Republicans that extended the Bush tax cuts. He also criticized Obama for backing off a promise to lift the payroll tax cap on earnings above $250,000 in order to ensure the long-term health of Social Security.

So when a caller to the Hartmann program asked how the country could get “back on track” with a government that “quit[s] running the country like a for-profit machine,” Sanders took aim at Obama’s policies that Sanders said wavered from the progressive agenda he laid out during his 2008 campaign.

Sanders, July 22, 2011: Let me just suggest this. I think that there are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment. So my suggestion is, I think, you know one of the reasons the president has been able to move so far to the right is that there is no primary opposition to him. And I think it would do this country a good deal of service if people started thinking about candidates out there to begin contrasting what is a progressive agenda as opposed to what Obama is doing.

The next caller then followed up, asking, “Who out there would you suggest? Who are you talking to? Are you encouraging anyone?”

Sanders, July 22, 2011: At this point, I have not, but I am now giving thought to doing it. You know the names out there as well as I do. And I think the American people have got to be engaged, it’s not just me or anybody else here in Washington. There are a lot of smart, honest progressive people who I think can be good presidents. And I think one of the reasons President Obama has moved as far to the right as he has, is he thinks he can go all the way and no one will stand up to him. So, Tim, I don’t want to tell you more than that, but this is an issue we are beginning to talk about a little bit.

The following month, Sanders was asked in a C-SPAN interview if he had someone in mind for a primary challenge to Obama, and what he thought that might accomplish (starting at the 23:20 mark):

Sanders, Aug. 12, 2011: I don’t know of anybody in mind, but I’m sure that there are serious and smart people out there who can do it. Here’s the point: If you’re asking me, do I think at the end of the day that Barack Obama is going to be the Democratic candidate for president in 2012? I do. But do I believe that it is a good idea for our democracy, and for the Democratic Party — and I speak, by the way, as an independent — that people start asking the president some hard questions about why he said one thing during his previous campaign and is doing another thing today on Social Security, on Medicare? I think it is important that that discussion take place.

By early 2012, however, Sanders was publicly supporting Obama’s reelection. As an introductory speaker before Obama took the podium at a campaign event at the University of Vermont, Sanders described 2012 as “a campaign of huge consequences” and pledged to do “everything we can to reelect Barack Obama as president of the United States.”

In a May 16, 2012, interview on CNN, host Wolf Blitzer asked where Sanders was on Obama, given that “last time we spoke, your endorsement of the president was lukewarm.”

Sanders responded that Republican Mitt Romney was “George Bush reincarnated” and said, “So if people liked the Bush economic policy, you’re going to like Romney. I thought the Bush economic policy was a disaster. … So I think Obama is by far the preferable candidate. Is Obama doing everything I want, absolutely not, and among other things he has not been as strong as he should standing up to Wall Street.”

So in one sense, Clinton was right that Sanders called Obama’s policies “weak” and “disappointing,” and Sanders did voice support for a primary challenge to Obama. But there’s no evidence he actually actively recruited anyone to oppose Obama. And ultimately, Sanders campaigned for Obama’s reelection.

Clinton on Sanders’ Gun Record

Clinton claimed that Sanders “voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak,” and that “he voted for immunity [for] gun makers and sellers.” She added, “There is no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were.”

Sanders did vote to allow guns on Amtrak trains, but in checked baggage only. And separate legislation he voted for didn’t give a “total pass” to gun makers and dealers from civil lawsuits.

On Sept. 16, 2009, Sanders voted in favor of an amendment to a transportation appropriations bill that restored the right of Amtrak passengers to transport guns in checked baggage. Doing so had been prohibited since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The amendment allowed passengers traveling to and from Amtrak stations with checked baggage service to place an unloaded firearm in a checked bag if the passenger provided advance notice that he or she would be traveling with a firearm and if that firearm was stored in a locked, hard-sided container to which only the passenger had the key or combination. The amendment also said passengers would be allowed to place ammunition for a small firearm inside the checked bag if the ammunition was stored securely in a box made of fiber, wood or metal, or other packaging used to transport small amounts of ammunition.

But Amtrak does not allow travelers to have firearms or ammunition physically on them while traveling or in their carry-on baggage. Amtrak also says that only its employees have access to the area of the train where checked bags are stored (see page 4 of a 2010 document explaining the Amtrak Checked Firearms Program).

Sanders also voted in favor of the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, which provided some protections for licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of firearms or ammunition, and trade associations from civil lawsuits resulting from the misuse of firearms or ammunition. But gun makers and dealers did not receive a “total pass,” as Clinton claimed.

As the Congressional Research Service pointed out in a 2012 report, the legislation included six exceptions where civil suits could still be brought, including cases in which a firearm seller acted with negligence, cases involving the transfer of a firearm with the knowledge that it would be used to commit a crime, and cases in which manufacturers and sellers marketed or sold a firearm in violation of state or federal law.

We should note that Sanders now says that he would support legislation that has been proposed that would take away the protections for licensed firearm manufacturers and dealers that were included in the 2005 bill he supported.

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


Sanders, Bernie. Medicare for All: Leaving No One Behind. Jan 2016.

Friedman, Gerald. Memo to Bernie Sander’s campaign. United States can afford single payer health care program. 1 Jan 2016.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Office of the Actuary, National Health Statistics Group. Table 1: National Health Expenditures, Aggregate and Per Capita Amounts, Annual Percentage Change and Percent Distribution, Selected Calendar Years, 1960-2014. Accessed 13 Jan 2016.

Martin, Anne et. al. “Growth In US Health Spending Remained Slow In 2010; Health Share Of Gross Domestic Product Was Unchanged From 2009.” Health Affairs. Jan 2012.

Kaiser Family Foundation. “Assessing the Effects of the Economy on the Recent Slowdown in Health Spending.” 22 Apr 2013.

Martin, Anne et. al. “National Health Spending In 2012: Rate Of Health Spending Growth Remained Low For The Fourth Consecutive Year.” Health Affairs. Jan 2014.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Crude Oil Production.” Short Term Energy Outlook. 12 Jan 2016. Data extracted 12 Jan 2016.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Table 3.3a. Monthly Energy Review.” 23 Dec 2015.

O’Malley for President. “A Jobs Agenda for Our Renewable Energy Future” Undated, accessed 18 Jan 2016.

Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.” The Sentencing Project. Aug 2013.

Mauer, Marc. “Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration.” The Prison Journal. Sep 2011.

Knafo, Saki. “1 In 3 Black Males Will Go To Prison In Their Lifetime, Report Warns.” Huffington Post. 4 Oct 2013.

Bonczar, Thomas P. “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974-2001.” Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Aug 2003.

Harrison, Paige and Allen J. Beck, PhD. “Prisoners in 2001.” Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Jul 2002.

Carson, E. Ann. “Prisoners in 2014.” Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sep 2015.

FactCheck.org. “FactChecking the MSNBC Democratic Forum.” 9 Nov 2015.

FactCheck.org. “FactChecking the Third Democratic Debate.” 20 Dec 2015.

Chu, Vivian. “The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act: An Overview of Limiting Tort Liability of Gun Manufacturers.” Congressional Research Service. 20 Dec 2012.

Wagner, John. “Sanders announces support for legislation that would repeal immunity for gun dealers.” Washington Post. 16 Jan 2015.

YouTube.com. “A Primary Challenger For Obama?” Thom Hartmann Show. Interview with Sen. Bernie Sanders. YouTube.com. 22 Jul 2011.

PolitiFact. Obammeter Promise: “Lift the payroll tax cap on earnings above $250,000.” Last updated 30 Apr 2012.

CSPAN. “Newsmakers with Senator Bernie Sanders.” 12 Aug 2011.

YouTube.com. Video: Bernie Sanders Speaking at University of Vermont Rally for Obama. 30 Mar 2012.

CNN The Situation Room. Transcript: Interview with Bernie Sanders. 16 May 2012.

Kane, Paul and Sonmez, Felicia. “Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks for 8 hours against tax cuts, while Congressional Black Caucus joins opposition.” Washington Post. 11 Dec 2010.