Fact-Checking the Democratic Debate in South Carolina

Seven of the candidates vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination took the stage Tuesday night in Charleston for their last debate before South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.

Here is how the candidates’ remarks stacked up against the truth.

What They’re talking about:

Ms. Warren: “At least I didn’t have a boss who said to me, ‘Kill it,’ the way that Mayor Bloomberg is alleged to have said to one of his pregnant employees.”

Mr. Bloomberg: “I never said it, period. End of story.”

This allegation was made by an employee of Bloomberg L.L.P. in a 1997 lawsuit that was eventually settled with no admission of guilt. Mr. Bloomberg has denied making the remark over the years, including at the debate. His aides said in 2001 that he had passed a lie-detector test, but the results were not released.

Mr. Bloomberg left a voice message for the employee saying that he had heard she was upset about the remarks, according to The Associated Press, saying “I didn’t say it, but if I did, I didn’t mean it.”

The Washington Post recently quoted a former Bloomberg employee who said that he witnessed the conversation and that it was “outrageous.”

What the facts are:

What Mr. Steyer Said:

“You wrote the crime bill,” he said, prompting an angry response from Mr. Biden, “to put hundreds of thousands of young black and Latino men in prison.”

Mostly True. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Biden, working with Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, wrote a half-dozen crime bills, laying the groundwork for three of the most significant pieces of crime legislation of the 20th century: the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, establishing mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which dictated much harsher sentences for possession of crack than for powder cocaine; and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a vast catchall tough-on-crime bill that also included money for prevention, including Mr. Biden’s signature initiative, the Violence Against Women Act.

The 1986 law, in particular, led to vast racial disparities in federal sentencing. The law specified a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for possession of five grams of crack cocaine — a drug prevalent in African-American communities — or 500 grams of powder cocaine, more prevalent among white people.

A 2002 report to Congress from the United States Sentencing Commission found that in 1992, 91.4 percent of federal crack cocaine offenders were black. In releasing a 2006 report on the 1986 measure, the American Civil Liberties Union called the law “a tragic mistake.”

Mr. Biden ultimately disavowed the measure. In 2007 — more than two decades after it passed — he called for undoing the crack-powder disparity, which he called “arbitrary, unnecessary and unjust,” while acknowledging his own role in creating it.

“I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then,” he said in 2008, “because I think the disparity is way out of line.”

What the Facts are:

What Mr. Sanders:

“What every study out there, conservative or progressive says: ‘Medicare for all’ will save money.”

False. There have been several analyses of Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for all health care proposal, which would provide every American with generous government-funded health insurance benefits. Those studies have shown a range of potential costs, including several that estimate that the plan would cost substantially more than what the country would otherwise spend on health care.

Mr. Sanders is correct that a recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet showed that his plan would cost $450 billion less in a year than the current health care system. But that study made several assumptions that other economists who have examined the plan have considered unrealistic. Other studies have shown that spending would increase as the plan expands coverage to more Americans, and provides them with expensive new benefits, like long-term care, which few health insurance plans currently cover. This article provides an overview of a few of these studies.

What the facts are:

What Mr. Biden said:

“We didn’t have all the information at that time until after the election was over.”

Mostly false. The F.B.I. warned the Democratic National Committee in 2015 that a foreign intelligence agency — it turned out to be Russia — was inside their networks. President Obama was not fully briefed until June 2016, when CrowdStrike, a private firm, concluded that two Russian spy agencies had infiltrated the systems. By the end of July 2016, the C.I.A. concluded with medium to high confidence that the attack had been begun by Russia, and soon after that it had been approved by President Vladimir V. Putin.

In short, there was plenty of evidence of Russian interferences. Mr. Obama chose not to respond until after the election, for fear that the Russians would try to affect the result. A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation concluded, with bipartisan agreement, that the Obama administration underreacted.

Mr. Biden is right that only after the Obama administration left office did the extent of Russia’s effort to influence social media become clear. But the hacking into the Democratic National Committee — a crime — was clearly understood, and the Obama administration reaction — expelling 35 diplomats who were actually spies, and closing some Russian facilities inside the United States — is today considered too little, too late.

What the Facts are:

What Mr. Sanders said:

“The economy is doing really great for people like Mr. Bloomberg and other billionaires. In the last three years, last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth. But you know what? For the ordinary American, things are not so good. Last year, real wage increases for the average worker were less than 1 percent. Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck.”

The second claim is true. After adjusting for inflation, wages for production and nonsupervisory workers increased by 0.7 percent from January 2019 to January 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The third claim is also true, according to several surveys of American families. In one such survey, the First National Bank of Omaha found 49 percent of Americans say they expect to live paycheck to paycheck this year.

The first claim is more difficult to assess. Calculations by the economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley, who have estimated wealth shares across the income distribution in the United States and scored Mr. Sanders’s proposed wealth tax, suggest that the top 400 wealthiest Americans have collectively gained about $500 billion in wealth over the last three years. There are more than 400 billionaires in America, though — and there is a debate among economists over how to properly measure the wealth they hold.

What the facts are:

What Mr. Bloomberg said:

“Before I left, life expectancy in New York City had grown by three years during our 12 years in office such that, when I left, it was three years greater than the national average.”

Mostly true. Mr. Bloomberg is correct that life expectancy in New York City is higher than it is in the United States overall and that it rose disproportionately during his tenure as mayor. New York is in many ways a model city in improving the health and longevity of its low-income residents. By the end of his tenure, life expectancy in the city had improved by three years, according to a city health department analysis, though the gap between the city’s and the nation’s life expectancy at the end of his time in office was a bit lower than he claimed, more like 2.3 years.

The degree to which Mr. Bloomberg should receive credit for this positive trend is somewhat contested among researchers. His administration pursued aggressive public health measures to reduce smoking, obesity and the consumption of trans fats. And, indeed, deaths from heart disease and smoking fell. But research has also suggested that New York’s high rate of immigrants may also explain part of the trend: Poor immigrants, in general, tend to be healthier than native-born Americans of similar incomes.

What the facts are:

Mr. Biden said:

“Right now if you live in a black neighborhood and have the same exact house as the guy across the street in a white neighborhood has, your house is valued significantly less than the white — the same exact house.”

This is true. In 2018, three researchers at the Brookings Institution — Andre M. Perry, Jonathan Rothwell, and David Harshbarger — found significant differences in home valuations between neighborhoods that were majority black and comparable areas with few or no black residents. “Homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 percent less ($48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses) in majority-black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no black residents,” they reported.

What the Facts Are:

What Mr. Bloomberg Said:

“I got the Republican State Senate to vote for gay marriage virtually before anybody else in this country.”

This is exaggerated. As mayor of New York City in May 2011, Mr. Bloomberg lobbied Republicans in the New York State Senate to support same-sex marriage, vowing to support their re-election efforts if they did so.

The legislation to legalize gay marriage passed 33 votes to 29 in June — the largest but not the first state to do so. (Vermont was the first.) Four of the 32 Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill, so Mr. Bloomberg is overstating the support among party members.

Mr. Bloomberg was also not the singular force in the efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and gay rights activists played a large role.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that “Mr. Cuomo made same-sex marriage one of his top priorities for the year and deployed his top aide to coordinate the efforts of a half-dozen local gay-rights organizations whose feuding and disorganization had in part been blamed for the defeat two years ago.”

What The Facts Are:

What Mr. Biden Said:

“He, in fact, does not, did not, has never embraced an authoritarian regime and does not now. … This man” — pointing to Mr. Sanders — “said that, in fact, he thought it was — he did not condemn what they did.”

False. Mr. Sanders has recently come under fire — particularly among some Cuban-Americans in Florida — for comments he made to CBS’s “60 Minutes” praising facets of the Cuban government. Mr. Biden is wrong, though, that Mr. Sanders did not criticize the government.

“We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad,” Mr. Sanders said during the interview. “When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?”

When Anderson Cooper, a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” pointed out that political dissidents remained imprisoned in Cuba, Mr. Sanders responded, “That’s right and we condemn that.”

Mr. Sanders is right that Mr. Obama also praised Cuba’s “enormous achievements in education and in health care.”

Mr. Biden’s contention that Mr. Obama did not “embrace” an authoritarian regime also glosses over the support provided by the Obama administration and previous administrations of both parties for governments that could arguably be called authoritarian. Human Rights Watch, for example, faulted Mr. Obama for tolerating abuses by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all longstanding allies of the United States.

What the facts are:

What Mr. Buttigieg said:

“What is a radical idea is completely eliminating all private insurance and part of how you know it is, is that no industrialized country has gone that far.”

This is exaggerated. Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for all plan technically does not eliminate all private health insurance. It bans private health insurers from offering products with benefits that replicate those offered by the government plan. This provision is very closely modeled on the health insurance system in Canada, where private insurance that replicates government benefits is also banned.

In practice, however, Mr. Sanders’s plan does leave a much smaller role for private insurance than Canada does. That’s because Mr. Sanders’s Medicare for all would cover such a wide array of health care benefits, including things that Canada’s plan does not cover, like dental care and prescription drugs. Mr. Sanders is fond of saying that private insurers would be welcome to offer coverage for elective cosmetic surgery, an opportunity that few insurers appear interested in covering now.

What the facts are:

What Mr. Steyer said:

“I believe I’m the only person on this stage who believes in reparations for slavery.”

False. Ms. Warren also supports reparations for African-Americans, though she has not has been specific about what form those reparations should take, or whether they should include direct payments from the government.

Both Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders support a bill introduced by Senator Cory Booker, who dropped out of the presidential race, to study the issue of government reparations and Mr. Sanders has said he would sign the bill should it reach his desk. But he has not explicitly expressed support for reparations.

What the Facts Are:

What Mr. Biden Said:

“Bernie voted five times against the Brady bill, and wanted a waiting period of 12 hours.”

This is true. Mr. Sanders voted against the Brady bill, which mandated a five-day waiting period for gun purchases, five times as Congress considered various versions. Mr. Sanders did vote for an amendment to the bill that would have imposed an instant background check system, but the technology did not exist at the time.

But over all, Mr. Sanders has a mixed record on guns and he has acknowledged that his position on guns has evolved, saying at a debate in February that “the world has changed and my views have changed.” Since 1992, he has received grades ranging from a C- to an F from the National Rifle Association and an F in his most recent re-election campaign in 2018.

He has also voted against funding for gun research (though he has since reversed his position), for increasing the burden of proof to prosecute lawbreaking gun dealers, and for allowing firearms on Amtrak trains and in national parks.

But Mr. Sanders also fulfilled his pledge to vote in favor of banning assault weapons. He has also voted to regulate high-capacity magazines, expand background checks, prohibit the sale of firearms to people on the government’s terrorist watchlist.

Mr. Sanders did vote twice to prohibit lawsuits against firearms manufacturers for crimes committed with a gun in 2003. He has since reversed his position and was a co-sponsor of legislation in 2017 and 2019 to repeal the laws that shields gunmakers from liability.

What the facts are:

What Ms. Warren Said:

“Who funded Lindsey Graham’s campaign for re-election last time? It was Mayor Bloomberg. And that’s not the only right-wing senator that Mayor Bloomberg has funded.”

She added, “In 2012, he scooped in to try to defend another Republican senator against a woman challenger. That was me. It didn’t work, but he tried hard.”

This is mostly true. Federal records show that Mr. Bloomberg has contributed $86 million to political action committees since 2012. All but about $17 million went to Democrats. Mr. Bloomberg supported specific Republican candidates, including Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who supported expanded background checks in gun purchases, a priority of Mr. Bloomberg’s. He also gave $250,000 in 2014 to a committee supporting Mr. Graham.

In 2012, Mr. Bloomberg backed Senator Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, in his losing campaign against Ms. Warren. Mr. Bloomberg said at the time that his support was a result of Mr. Brown’s backing of a gun-control measure.

In addition, Mr. Bloomberg put $100 million into 24 Democratic campaigns for the House of Representatives in 2018, and 21 of those candidates were successful, helping flip the house to Democratic control.

During his 12 years as mayor of New York, Mr. Bloomberg was the primary financial supporter of the Republican majority in the State Senate. He specifically promised support in 2011 to any Republican state senator who voted for marriage equality. The law passed, though Mr. Bloomberg’s support was not the only factor.

What the facts are:

What Ms. Warren Said:

“I dug in, I fought the big banks, I built the coalitions and I won.”

Mostly true. Ms. Warren, then a professor at Harvard Law School, pushed for the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency established by Congress in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Mr. Obama called the agency “Elizabeth’s idea” and applauded her “sheer force of will, intelligence and a bottomless well of energy.”

That said, Mr. Sanders has a long record of advocating an overhaul of Wall Street regulations and for breaking up the big banks — a central theme of his 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

What They’re Talking About:

What Mr. Buttigieg Said:

“In Charleston alone, just in Charleston, over 2,000 people have contributed to my campaign. That means the dollars that have come to my campaign, just from Charleston, is more than the dollars that have come from the 50 people that you mentioned.”

Forbes magazine named 40 billionaires who have contributed to a total of more than $113,000 to Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign as of December 2019. Mr. Buttigieg has a point that his campaign is not predominantly or even largely funded by billionaires. According to the campaign finance watchdog group Open Secrets, Mr. Buttigieg has raised over $35.8 million from individuals who have contributed less than $200 and another $46.6 million from large donations.

It’s unclear if his specific claim comparing individual donors in Charleston with the billionaire donors is accurate. According to The State, a newspaper in South Carolina, Mr. Buttigieg raised $74,000 from 117 donors in Charleston and $271,202 from all donors in South Carolina. Mr. Buttigieg’s average donation was $34 in the fourth quarter of last year, according to his campaign. That’s about $68,000 for the 2,000 people, assuming the average holds for South Carolina. Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign has received donations from 741,000 people, behind only Mr. Sanders (1.4 million) and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (892,000).

Fact checks and explainers by Linda Qiu, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Margot Sanger-Katz, Jim Tankersley and Jim Dwyer.

Continue reading at New York Times