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FactChecking the MSNBC Democratic Debate

Clinton, Sanders exchange misleading claims in a head-to-head debate leading into the New Hampshire primary.


We found several false and misleading claims in the debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

  • Sanders claimed Clinton called Barack Obama “naive” in 2007 because he “thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies.” That lacks context. Clinton objected not to meeting with enemies, but to Obama’s statement that he would do so without preconditions.
  • Sanders claimed that NAFTA and other trade deals have cost “millions” of U.S. jobs, but independent economists have said the impact on the economy was small.
  • Clinton revised history in discussing her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She supported the trade deal as secretary of state.
  • Sanders mixed and matched two different sets of data to claim that “millions of Americans … are working longer hours for low wages.”
  • Sanders said that his campaign “did not suggest that we had the endorsement” of the Nashua Telegraph in a new TV ad running in New Hampshire. In fact, the ad leaves that false impression.
  • Clinton said “the Wall Street guys are trying so hard to stop me.” But Clinton and PACs that support her have raised millions from Wall Street interests.
  • Sanders said that his campaign could better deliver a large voter turnout, the key to a Democrat winning the White House in November. But statistics on voter turnout in presidential elections don’t show such a clear partisan trend.
  • Sanders wrongly claimed that “not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real.” Two of the Republican presidential candidates, not to mention more Republicans in Congress, have said climate change is real and humans contribute to it.
  • While discussing the Trans Pacific Partnership, Sanders ascribed a misleading figure for the minimum wage in Vietnam.
  • Sanders claimed that the United States has “the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on earth.” But the childhood poverty rate is higher in several industrialized economies.


The Feb. 4 debate, held in Durham, New Hampshire, was hosted by MSNBC a few days ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.

Did Clinton Call Obama ‘Naive’?

Sanders left out an important piece of context when he reminded voters that Clinton once called President Obama “naive” on foreign policy. Sanders claimed Clinton said Obama was naive “because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies.” Clinton responded that she wanted to “correct the record” to reflect that her comment in 2007 was not simply that Obama said he would meet with enemy leaders, but that he would do so without preconditions. The record is in Clinton’s favor on this one.

Sanders: And I would say if I might, madam secretary — and you can correct me if I’m wrong. When you ran against Senator Obama you thought him naive because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies. I think those are exactly the people you have to talk to and you have to negotiate with.

Clinton: Well senator, let me just correct the record if I can. You know — let me correct the record. As I certainly recall, the question was to meet with without conditions. And you’re right, I was against that. I was against it then I would be against it now.

Part of diplomacy, the hard work of diplomacy is trying to extract whatever concessions you can get, and giving something the other side wants. Of course you’ve got to try to make peace with, and work with those who are your adversaries, but you don’t just rush in, open the door, and say, “Here I am. Let’s talk and make a deal.” That’s not the way it works.

This is not the first time Sanders has made this claim. Our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact weighed in when Sanders characterized Clinton’s comment in a similar way during a Jan. 17 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Let’s rewind the tape back to July 2007, at a different Democratic presidential debate. During the CNN/YouTube debate, the question was posed, “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

Then-candidate Obama responded, “I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.”

Clinton offered a more nuanced answer.

“Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year,” Clinton said. “I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy. And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

In an interview the following day with the Quad-City Times, Clinton sharpened her attack, calling Obama’s comment “irresponsible and frankly naive.”

“I think it is wrong for any president to say that he or she will not talk to people because they’re bad or they’re evil,” she said. “But the question was very specific, as to whether either of us would talk to a list of leaders of five countries with which the United States has serious difficulties within the first year of becoming president, and I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive to say that he would commit to meeting with Chavez and Castro and others within the first year. As I said last night, there needs to be a lot of diplomatic effort.”

So Clinton wasn’t saying Obama was naive simply “because he thought it was a good idea to talk to our enemies,” as Sanders put it. To the contrary, Clinton said she would support “vigorous diplomacy” with the envoys of enemy countries. In the very interview in which Clinton made the “naive” comment, she began by saying that “it is wrong for any president to say that he or she will not talk to people because they’re bad or they’re evil.” But she cautioned against the president meeting with the leaders of rogue nations until the legwork of diplomacy has been well-established.

Old NAFTA Claim Still Wrong

Sanders claimed that the North American Free Trade Agreement and subsequent international trade deals have cost “millions” of U.S. jobs.

Sanders: [T]he current trade agreements over the last 30 years were written by corporate America, for corporate America, resulted in the loss of millions of decent-paying jobs, 60,000 factories in America lost since 2001, millions of decent-paying jobs.

The fact is, the U.S. has gained nearly 31 million jobs since the month before NAFTA took effect on Jan. 1, 1994. And economists have been debating whether more or fewer jobs would have resulted in the absence of the landmark trade deal among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

As we wrote in 2008: “Nearly all economic studies say NAFTA’s net effect on jobs was negligible.” Back then, it was then-Sen. Barack Obama attacking Hillary Clinton, claiming that “1 million jobs have been lost because of NAFTA” (which her husband, Bill Clinton, lobbied for and signed).

We reported then that “those figures are highly questionable and from an anti-NAFTA source. Other economic studies have concluded the trade deal resulted in much smaller job losses or even a small net gain.”

The passage of time hasn’t changed the consensus view of independent economists. A 2015 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service stated: “The overall net effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy has been relatively small.”

CRS, April 16, 2015: In reality, NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters. The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest, primarily because trade with Canada and Mexico accounts for a small percentage of U.S. GDP.

Clinton’s Revisionist History

Clinton revised history when she discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal recently signed by 12 nations, including the United States.

Clinton: I said that I was holding out that hope that it would be the kind of trade agreement that I was looking for. I waited until it had actually been negotiated because I did want to give the benefit of the doubt to the administration. Once I saw what the outcome was, I opposed it.

That was her position as a presidential candidate, when she was under pressure from labor unions to come out against the trade agreement. But before that, as secretary of state, Clinton supported the pact, as mentioned by moderator Chuck Todd.

Speaking in Australia, on Nov. 15, 2012, Clinton called the TPP “the gold standard in trade agreements.” In Singapore two days later, Clinton said the pact will “establish strong protections for workers.”

“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,” she said in Singapore.

On Jan. 18, 2013, Clinton met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. At a press conference after the meeting, Clinton said they discussed the TPP, which she said “holds out great economic opportunities to all participating nations.”

Clinton left office a few weeks later on Feb. 1, 2013.

Longer Hours for Less Pay?

Sanders repeated his talking point that “millions of Americans … are working longer hours for low wages.” (Typically, he says “lower wages,” as he did in a Dec. 29, 2015, Facebook post, a Jan. 14 tweet, and a campaign ad that began airing in November.)

Sanders: Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process. And they’re giving up on the political process because they understand the economy is rigged. They are working longer hours for low wages. They’re worried about the future of their kids, and yet almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.

Let’s look at the official figures. The average weekly hours of production and nonsupervisory employees in the private sector have declined — from a high point of 38.8 hours a week in May 1965 to 33.7 hours a week in December 2015, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average weekly hours dropped to a low of 33 in June 2009, at the official end of the Great Recession, and have gone up a bit to 33.7, where weekly hours also were in January 2008.

For all employees in the private sector, BLS data are only available since 2009, showing a small increase in weekly hours from 33.8 hours to 34.5 hours on average.

At the same time that average weekly hours for production and nonsupervisory employees were going down, the average weekly earnings also declined. BLS numbers show average weekly earnings for those employees in May 1965 were $320.69, in 1982-84 dollars, compared with $307.94 in December 2015. That’s a drop in inflation-adjusted earnings of 4 percent, during a time period in which the hours worked declined 13 percent.

So that’s lower earnings for fewer hours worked.

Average weekly earnings for all workers, adjusted for inflation and seasonal factors by BLS, have gone up 4.2 percent from March 2009 to December 2015, during that small increase in weekly hours. Hourly earnings are up, too, over that time period, by 2.1 percent, adjusted for inflation.

Full-time workers polled by the Gallup organization report working more hours than the BLS numbers show, but over time that figure has held steady, not increased. The 2013-14 Gallup survey found the average week for full-time workers was 46.7 hours. “The amount of hours that all U.S. full-time employees say they typically work each week has held fairly steady over the past 14 years, except for a slight dip to just under 45 hours in Gallup’s 2004-2005 two-year average,” Gallup wrote of its most recent poll. “Part-time workers have averaged about 20 hours per week less than full-timers, although the precise figure shifts more for part-timers. This is partly due to the lower sample size of this group, resulting in greater volatility in the measure.”

So how does Sanders support his claim that “millions of Americans” (or the “average person,” as he claimed on Twitter) are working longer hours for lower wages? By comparing apples to oranges.

The campaign pointed to a chart from the Pew Research Center that used BLS data on hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory employees. That chart shows a slight increase in inflation-adjusted hourly wages, of about $1.50, from 1964 to 2014.

But the campaign points to a slight decrease in hourly wages if measured from 1975 to 2014. Of course, those production and nonsupervisory employees’ average weekly hours went down over that time period, from 36.1 hours in January 1975 to 33.8 hours in December 2014. That’s lower wages for fewer hours.

Why start the clock in 1975? Because the Sanders camp points to a different set of data to claim that the hours worked went up.

The campaign cites a 2011 Brookings Institution report that found the number of total hours worked by two-parent families in the middle 10 percent (in terms of earnings) had gone up since 1975 — mainly because more women entered the workforce.

“In 2009, for instance, the typical two-parent family worked 26 percent longer than the typical family in 1975,” the Brookings report says. “The 26 percent increase in hours worked mainly reflects increases in work outside of the home among women. In fact, among two-parent families with median earnings, the hours of men were relatively constant over time, while hours worked by women more than doubled from 1975 to 2009.”

So, these individuals in the two-parent family — mom and dad — weren’t each working longer hours for lower pay. Instead, the family as a whole posted longer hours because women worked more hours outside the home. Dads’ hours remained constant.

And while these families’ median hours increased 26 percent, their median wages earned went up 23 percent.

Brookings did find a “dramatic” increase in the hours worked by single-parent families (53 percent since 1975) but also an even larger corresponding percentage increase in earnings (about 69 percent). The reason again was pegged to an increase in women’s participation in the labor force and increases in their wages.

To sum up: The Sanders campaign cites BLS data showing hourly wages went down slightly over a time period in which average weekly hours also went down. And then it cites Brookings data on a subset of families showing that hours worked went up over a time period in which wages also went up.

Sanders’ claim relies on mixing and matching two different sets of data. By the same logic, one could also wrongly claim that Americans are working fewer hours, using the BLS data, for higher wages, using Brookings’ report.

As for Sanders’ claim that “almost all new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent,” he has cited the work of economists Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics and Political Science for such claims in the past. We wrote in July that he exaggerated in saying that “almost all of the wealth rests in the hands of the few,” even by the Saez-Zucman study, which some economists have disputed. That study found that the top 1 percent held 41.8 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2012. That’s not “almost all.”

The June 2015 update of the Saez-Zucman study on income says that 55 percent of real income growth from 1993 to 2014 went to the top 1 percent (see Table 1, page 8). Even more recently, from 2009 to 2014, during the economic recovery, 58 percent of real income growth went to the top 1 percent. That’s a majority, but also not “almost all.”

Sanders’ Endorsement Ad

Sanders went too far when he said “we did not suggest that we had the endorsement” of the Nashua Telegraph in a new TV ad running in New Hampshire.

MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow asked Sanders if he was “losing control” of his campaign. She said, for example, “the Nashua Telegraph has complained recently that you falsely implied in an advertisement that they had endorsed you when they did not.”

Sanders denied that the ad made any such an implication.

Sanders: [A]s I understand it, we did not suggest that we had the endorsement of a newspaper. Newspapers who make endorsements also say positive things about other candidates, and to the best of my knowledge, that is what we did. So we never said, never said that somebody, a newspaper endorsed us that did not. What we did say is blah blah blah blah was said by the newspaper.

As we wrote, however, that ad leaves the false impression that Sanders was endorsed by the Nashua Telegraph and the Valley News. Neither paper has made an endorsement.

The campaign titled the TV ad “Endorsed.” It starts with the narrator saying, “From postal workers to nurses, he has been endorsed for real change, Bernie Sanders.” The ad shows quotations and/or logos from five organizations that have endorsed Sanders, and then adds at the end favorable quotes from the two newspapers.

Roger Carroll, executive editor of the Nashua Telegraph tweeted, “For the record, despite @BernieSanders deceptive ad to the contrary, @NashuaTelegraph has not endorsed any Dem prez candidate.”

Wall Street Contributions

Clinton said “the Wall Street guys are trying so hard to stop me.” But Clinton and PACs that support her have raised millions from Wall Street interests.

According to Opensecrets.org, Clinton’s campaign collected nearly $3 million from people working in the “securities and investment” industry and about $600,000 from those working for “commercial banks.” The “securities and investment” industry ranks fourth among her top donors.

The nonpartisan watchdog group, which codes and tallies individual donations based on employers, defines Wall Street as “the securities and investment and commercial banking industries” — which means that Clinton has raised about $3.6 million from Wall Street employees.

That’s only contributions directly to her campaign. If that total is combined with donations to super PACs that support her, Clinton has the financial support of more than $17 million from Wall Street workers.

A Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports filed by Clinton and pro-Clinton super PACs found that “donors at hedge funds, banks, insurance companies and other financial services firms had given at least $21.4 million to support Clinton’s 2016 presidential run — more than 10 percent of the $157.8 million contributed to back her bid.”

Sanders, by contrast, received $55,000 from the “securities and investment” industry, and the commercial banks industry was not among his top 20 donors, Opensecrets.org data show. There is no single-candidate super PAC supporting Sanders.

Among all candidates in both parties, Clinton ranks No. 1 in contributions from workers in the securities and investment and the hedge funds and private equity industries.

Voter Turnout and a Democratic Victory

Sanders made the case that large voter turnout is the key to a Democrat winning the White House in November, and argued that his campaign is better equipped to create the public enthusiasm necessary to drive a large turnout.

But the statistics on voter turnout in presidential elections don’t draw as clear a partisan trend as Sanders suggested.

Sanders: Democrats win when there is a large voter turnout; when people are excited; when working people, middle class people and young people are prepared to engage in the political process. Republicans win when people are demoralized and you have a small voter turnout, which by the way is why they love voter suppression. 

So is it true that Democrats win the White House when voter turnout is high? The trend is not as linear as Sanders claimed.

We looked at data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the percentage of turnout among the voting age population during presidential elections.

Voter turnout has been on a general decline for decades. So it is difficult to compare turnouts in races in, say, the 1800s to the 2000s, because almost all of the turnout percentages were higher in the 1800s. Just looking at the last 14 presidential elections going back to 1960 — seven won by Democrats and seven won by Republicans — there are examples of Republicans winning with both high and low voter turnout, and of Democrats winning with high and low voter turnout.

Over that stretch, the highest turnout rates were in 1960 (62.77 percent) and 1964 (61.92 percent), elections won by Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. But the third highest percentage in that period was 60.84 in 1968, won by Republican Richard Nixon. Obama won with a relatively high voter turnout percentage of 58.23 in 2008. But he also won reelection with a below average voter turnout (54.87 percent) in 2012.

Democrat Bill Clinton won with a turnout of 55.24 percent in 1992, but that was a lower turnout than in 2004 (56.7 percent) when Republican George W. Bush won. And Clinton’s reelection in 1996 saw the lowest voter turnout percentage (49 percent) since 1924.

The Sanders campaign pointed to research from the Pew Research Center that shows nonvoters tend to be more liberal than voters, and that while nonvoters tend to have weak partisan ties, a higher percentage of them identify as Democrats than Republicans. That may be, but as we can see from past presidential election turnouts, it’s not simply a matter of turnout, but who you get to turn out.

Republicans on Climate Change

While discussing the influence of political donations, Sanders said: “Not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real.” That’s false.

It’s true that several of the remaining Republican presidential candidates have said that they do not believe human activity contributes to climate change. But some believe it does.

Those who have said they don’t believe in climate change, or doubt the science behind it, include Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Those who have said that climate change is real include former Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Chris Christie.

For example, during an interview with Bloomberg BNA on July 30, 2015, Bush said: “The climate is changing; I don’t think anybody can argue it’s not. Human activity has contributed to it. I think we have a responsibility to adapt to what the possibilities are without destroying our economy, without hollowing out our industrial core.”

Likewise, on Dec. 1, 2015, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Christie said: “We cannot say that our activity doesn’t contribute to changing the climate.”

“Listen, there are a lot of scientists that agree with me that climate change is real, occurs, and that men and women contribute to it,” Christie said. However, he added that the changing climate is “not a crisis.”

We contacted Sanders’ campaign to ask if “Republicans” was a reference to the 2016 presidential candidates or Republicans in general, but the campaign did not clarify the senator’s statement.

There are other Republicans in Congress who have said that human activity contributes to climate change.

In fact, Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, ran TV ads during that campaign touting his willingness to buck his party and sponsor legislation to address climate change, as we wrote at the time.

McCain, for example, sponsored a cap-and-trade bill with Sen. Joe Lieberman. “McCain and Lieberman first introduced their climate change bill in 2003, and it didn’t go over well with McCain’s fellow Republicans,” we wrote.

More recently, on Jan. 21, 2015, McCain voted for an amendment to legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline that definitively stated that “[c]limate change is real; and human activity contributes to climate change.”

In addition to McCain, 14 other Republicans voted for that amendment, which failed to obtain the 60 votes it needed to pass.

Vietnam’s Minimum Wage

Sanders used a misleading figure about wages in Vietnam, one of the countries covered by the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which he opposes.

Sanders: [T]he TPP is, it’s to say to American workers, hey, you are now competing against people in Vietnam who make 56 cents an hour minimum wage.

It’s true that the minimum wage in Vietnam is a fraction of the $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage in the U.S., but for most Vietnamese workers it’s higher than Sanders claimed.

According to the Wageindicator Foundation of the University of Amsterdam, Vietnam increased its minimum wage this year by 13 percent — from a low of $107 per month (stated in U.S. dollars) to a high of $156, depending on which of four regions of the country a worker is employed.

Vietnam does not set an hourly wage, but the law there does permit a 48-hour normal work week. So on that basis, the minimum wage could indeed be as low as 56 cents per hour — in Region IV. But that is the least developed portion of the country. In Region I, which includes Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hai Phong and several of the country’s other most populous cities, the minimum wage figures out to 81 cents an hour based on a 48-hour work week.

Furthermore, Sanders failed to mention that U.S. workers already compete with Vietnamese workers — and will continue to do so with or without the TPP. The U.S. imported $3.2 billion in goods from Vietnam in November, and nearly $35 billion in the first 11 months of last year, according to most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That made Vietnam this country’s 13th largest trading partner in terms of imports for 2015.

Correction, Feb. 8: In our original article, we said the minimum wage in Vietnam was higher than 56 cents an hour in all regions. We based that on a 40-hour work week, failing to note that Vietnam allows a normal 48-hour work week. We regret the error, and thank the alert reader who brought it to our attention.

Childhood Poverty

Sanders repeated the claim that the United States has “the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country on earth.” As we have written, the childhood poverty rate is higher in several industrialized economies.

When Sanders made a similar claim in the second debate, his campaign referred us to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which showed that nearly 21 percent of children up to the age of 17 were living in “relative poverty” in the U.S. in 2012.

“Relative poverty” is a measure of household disposable income relative to other residents of that country.

By that measure, the U.S. ranked seventh among 38 countries. Turkey, Israel, Mexico, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all had higher rates of child poverty than the U.S., in the OECD’s ranking.

The official poverty rate for children under 18 in the United States was 21.1 percent in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An alternative measure called the Supplemental Poverty Measure put the childhood poverty rate at 16.7 percent in 2014, the Census Bureau says.

The SPM was developed in 2011 to account for many of the government programs assisting low-income families and individuals that are not included in the current official poverty measure, the bureau explains on its website.

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


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