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A guide to fact checks of candidates seeking the Democratic nomination

(Reuters) (Reuters File Photo/Reuters)

The first Democratic primary debates will be held Wednesday and Thursday, and The Fact Checker for months has been vetting many statements as the candidates have barnstormed the country. Here’s a guide to some of the claims readers may hear from the debate stage. Not all of the claims resulted in Pinocchios, but we make note of the rating when a politician earned one.

“This idea that the [1994] crime bill generated mass incarceration — it did not generate mass incarceration.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden

Biden has tried to deflect criticism that the 1994 crime bill contributed to an increase in incarceration by pinning the blame on the states for building more prisons and passing tougher laws. But the federal law set the tone — and the bill he helped craft included incentives for states to overhaul their laws and build more prisons.

The bill earmarked $8.7 billion over six years for states to build more prisons. About half of that was available to states that enacted “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which curb paroles and required people convicted of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

There are many factors that contributed to the United States having such a high incarceration rate, but few experts dispute that the crime bill was a contributor. Even former president Bill Clinton admitted this in 2015: “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.”

“I was always labeled as one of the most liberal members of the United States Congress.”

— Biden

Biden has been trying to play up his liberal credentials as the Democrats have moved left, but he was generally considered a moderate Democrat.

Over the course of his Senate career, Biden was usually at or about the 25 most liberal members of the Senate, according to Voteview, a well-regarded database at the University of California at Los Angeles. Voteview offers every congressional roll-call vote in American history on a liberal-conservative ideological map, including information about the ideological positions of voting senators and House members.

His average over 19 congressional sessions was 74 percent on Voteview’s scale, which translates into the 26th most liberal senator. That meant he was no Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) or Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), but neither was he one of the conservative “blue dog” Democrats who voted more consistently with Republicans. So, in terms of perspective, Biden was more liberal than about three-quarters of the Senate.

Former vice president Joe Biden is the latest 2020 contender to claim Trump's tax cut skipped the middle class. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“There’s a $2 trillion tax cut last year. Did you feel it? Did you get anything from it? Of course not. Of course not. All of it went to folks at the top and corporations.”

— Biden

This was Four-Pinocchio wrong. In terms of just individual tax cuts in the Trump tax law — which we should consider given that Biden was addressing union workers and other campaign supporters — the Tax Policy Center found 65 percent of taxpayers would get tax cuts. In the $50,000 to $75,000 range, 82 percent would get tax cuts, with people who got a tax cut ending up with an average of almost $1,000. The Biden campaign tried to argue that he was talking about the impact of the law in 2027, when the individual tax cuts in the law will have expired. But Biden spoke in the present tense.

Despite good economic news, prominent Democrats suggest many Americans are still working two or three jobs "to pay the bills" and "to survive." (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

“Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job. But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And the “millions” of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent of workers are not working two or three jobs “just to survive,” making this a misleading statement. (Since there was some Twitter outrage about this assessment, please note that this is a summary of a previous fact check, in which we said Sanders had the “most accurate sound bite” on this issue among Democrats running for president. The full version can be found here.)

“Medicare-for-all will eliminate the $28,000 a year that the average American family today is forced to pay to insurers.”

— Sanders

Sanders uses this figure to argue that any tax increase because of his health-care plan would be less than what an average family currently pays in premiums, co-payments and deductibles for health insurance. The $28,000 estimate comes from the 2018 Milliman Medical Index. The index estimates the total cost of health care for an average family of four and includes fees usually covered by an employer. Leaving out this aspect makes Sanders’s claim misleading.

Employers cover about 57 percent of that $28,000. So to an average family of four, the cost of health care appears to be $12,000. (Basic economics says the employer contribution is part of the overall paycheck, but most people don’t “feel” that money.) If Sanders wants most families to feel as if they’re saving money, any tax increase from Medicare-for-all would have to be less than the visible cost of health care — that is, $12,000.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) argues there will still be a role for private insurance in a government-run system. But the bill she co-sponsors says otherwise. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Medicare-for-all “doesn’t get rid of all insurance.”

— Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.)

Harris is a co-sponsor of Sanders’s Medicare-for-all bill, which envisions a single-payer health-care system with virtually no role for private health-care insurance. That would be a big change for most Americans: In 2017, according to the Census Bureau, 67 percent of Americans — 217 million people — received health insurance through a private plan, mostly through their employer. Yet Harris gamely insists there would still be a role for insurance companies (even though Sanders does not).

As a practical matter, the Sanders plan proposes to cover such a comprehensive set of benefits that there would be virtually no role for private insurance.

Democrats running for president have lots of facts and figures about the state of working Americans. Here's their evidence. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Forty percent of Americans say they don’t have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency expense.”

— Harris

This statistic is courtesy of a Federal Reserve report on the “Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households.” But the report noted the ratio is an improvement from 2013, when half of the adults said they were “ill-prepared for such an expense.” In 2017, 59 percent said they could cover the expense, a significant increase, and the number grew to 61 percent in 2018. With the continued growth of the economy, the figure is probably even higher in 2019.

Warren said the minimum wage “would pay a mortgage, keep the utilities on and put food on the table” in the 1960s, but would not this decade. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Because when I was a kid, a minimum-wage job in America would support a family of three. It would pay a mortgage, keep the utilities on and put food on the table. Today, a minimum-wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.”

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

In 1961, Warren’s father, a Montgomery Ward carpet salesman, had a heart attack, and so her mother started to earn money by answering phones in the catalogue department at Sears, Roebuck and Co. “A job at Sears allowed my mother to eke out a living for a family of three,” Warren wrote in her memoir. (It’s unclear how long her father did not work, but he did get another job, and so the family lived on more than just a minimum-wage paycheck.)

Warren’s broader point is largely correct if you use the official poverty rate. The minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. In the 1960s, a minimum-wage job may have kept a three-person family out of poverty. Now, such a job would not keep a single mother with a child out of poverty.

The annual earnings from today’s minimum wage is $15,080. In contrast, the poverty level for a two-person family is $15,877, and for an adult and one child is $16,895.

2020 Democratic contender Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) claimed toy guns face more regulations than real guns, but hundreds of laws to regulate firearms (Video: The Washington Post)

“In the US we have more federal regulation over toy guns than real ones.”

— Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)

Booker is trying to highlight that no federal agency is charged with ensuring a safe design for guns. But Booker’s comparison of the regulations of toy guns and real guns is specious.

There are clearly many laws and regulations governing the sale, distribution and use of guns. For instance, federal law bans civilian ownership of machine guns that were not registered before May 1986. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) implements gun laws passed by Congress, and sometimes the laws are reinterpreted from a safety or design perspective. ATF in 2018 banned bump stocks, for example, saying they fell within the definition of a machine gun under the law.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not regulate guns, but it does regulate toy guns. That does not mean there are “more regulations” of toy guns than real ones. Firearms, at just about every level, are highly regulated in the United States.

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke claimed U.S. forces have been fighting in Iraq for nearly three decades. His math is off. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Given what others are already sacrificing in this country, men and women who are deployed right now in wars that have gone for 17, 27 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

— Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.)

For Iraq, O’Rourke is counting from 1991, when the United States and its allies ejected the Iraqis from Kuwait. In doing so, he is counting the years 1991 through 2003, when the United States and its partners imposed no-fly zones in the northern and southern parts of Iraq but did not have forces on the ground. A spokesman said O’Rourke’s remarks were inspired by Gen. Stephen W. Wilson, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff, who came before the House Armed Services Committee on Oct. 3, 2017, and stated: “The 26 years of continuous combat has limited our ability to prepare . . . against advanced future threats." But Wilson’s remarks were not made in the context of Iraq, and they were only about the Air Force.

O’Rourke also ignores the period between 2011 and 2014, when U.S. troops had left Iraq. At best, it adds up to 12 years of war, experts said. After our fact check ran, O’Rourke updated the number to 28 years but kept saying it.

“I have already shared with you that many are working second or third jobs — in fact, in Texas, half of your colleagues are working a second or third job just to put food on the table.”

— O’Rourke

O’Rourke was apparently speaking to a teacher when he made this comment. His spokesman says that O’Rourke was referring to a study released by the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). In August, the union said that a survey of its members found that 39 percent of teachers expect to take extra jobs outside the classroom to meet family expenses.

But this appears to be a self-selected survey, not a random sample. In other words, these results cannot be applied to all Texas teachers; they reflect only the answers of the people who decided to respond to the survey.

By contrast, the U.S. Education Department conducts a nationally representative sample survey of public K-12 schools, principals and teachers in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The most recent survey shows that 17 percent of teachers in the South — and 18 percent across the country — supplemented their income with a job outside the school system.

2020 Presidential hopeful and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper claimed his state had the best economy for three consecutive years. (Video: Sarah Cahlan/The Washington Post)

“We have the number one economy in the country for three straight years.”

— Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (D)

Hickenlooper is citing a subsection of the U.S. News and World Report’s annual state rankings but does not make that clear. Other methodologies come up with different results. CNBC ranked Colorado’s economy in eighth place among all states last year. WalletHub ranked Colorado’s economy in fifth place. Moreover, the gross domestic product and unemployment figures for Colorado were not the best among the 50 states from 2016 through 2018.

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