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Larry Elder’s false and misleading claims in California recall race

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder speaks to supporters at a rally in Westminster, Calif., on Sept. 4. (Ringo Chiu/AFP via Getty Images)
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Californians on Tuesday will vote on whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). The Republican front-runner in the recall election is Larry Elder, a longtime talk-radio host who has been emulating former president Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

One way in which Elder, 69, is following Trump’s playbook is by repeating false and misleading claims. We rounded up several, on California’s economy and wildfires, on coronavirus vaccinations for children and on the 2020 election.

“They asked me about the way this governor has shut down this state … only half the jobs have been recovered as opposed to two-thirds the national average.” (“Media Buzz” on Fox News, Sept. 5)

The United States experienced a two-month recession in the spring of 2020, and a sharp rise in unemployment, as states entered lockdown mode to contain the spread of covid-19.

But Elder’s figures were somewhat outdated by the time of this interview. At the end of July, California had recovered around 58 percent of the jobs it lost during the coronavirus recession, as his campaign acknowledged when we sent questions. The United States had recovered three-quarters, not two-thirds.

U.S. employers added 235,000 jobs in August, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics preliminary estimates. The August figures for California are not yet available. The state contributed 12 percent of the country’s job growth for the year ended July 31. If a similar rate kept up in August, the state would be around 60 percent jobs regained from the 2020 low point.

“He can’t explain why people are leaving California for the first time in our state’s 170-year history.” (“Media Buzz” on Fox News, Sept. 5)

The 2020 census found that California had 10.4 million more residents than Texas, the next largest state. California’s population grew by 2.3 million, or 6 percent, in the decade since 2010.

The Elder campaign noted that the state is losing one of 53 congressional seats (its rate of growth slowed) and that its population shrank last year for the first time on record.

That was due to long-term demographics, which lie beyond any one governor’s control. Moreover, Elder on Fox News said people “are leaving,” and he blamed Newsom, which sounded more like he was talking about out-migration.

For the 12-month period through June 2020, “135,600 more people left the state than moved here,” the Associated Press reported. But this was no new phenomenon. “It’s only the 12th time since 1900 the state has had a net migration loss, and the third largest ever recorded,” the report added.

Nonpartisan policy analysts in the state legislature reviewed data from the American Community Survey and found that “from 2007 to 2016, about 5 million people moved to California from other states, while about 6 million left California.”

“On net, the state lost 1 million residents to domestic migration — about 2.5 percent of its total population,” this 2018 study found. “These population losses are low in historical terms.”

“I’ve been vaccinated because I’m in a high-risk category. And I urge people who are in categories that are high-risk to be vaccinated. But I don’t believe the science does compel children to be vaccinated. They’re not likely to contract the coronavirus. They’re not likely to get really sick. They’re not likely to go to hospital. And they’re not likely to die. I believe that’s consistent with the science of people like Dr. Marty Makary from Johns Hopkins, and Scott Atlas from Hoover.” (“Media Buzz” on Fox News, Sept. 5)

Without naming any opponents, a Newsom television ad claims that voting yes on the recall question “elects an anti-vaccine Trump Republican.” Elder has stated repeatedly that he is vaccinated.

However, Elder’s comments about covid-19 and children drew criticism from medical experts, who said he was spreading misinformation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “since March 2020, approximately one in four hospitalized children and adolescents with covid-19 has required intensive care.” The CDC’s covid-19 data, a lagging indicator based on death certificates, showed 486 covid deaths of people under 18 from the start of the pandemic through the week of Sept. 4.

“Infants and children can get very ill with covid-19, in contrast to what Mr. Elder is saying. And children can die from covid-19 — over 530 deaths,” said Tina Q. Tan, a pediatrician and infectious-disease specialist at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

In its most recent “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” the CDC found a “nearly five-fold” increase in the rate of covid-19 hospitalizations during the summer for people under 18.

“Although COVID-19-associated hospitalizations and deaths have occurred more frequently in adults, COVID-19 can also lead to severe outcomes in children and adolescents,” the CDC report said, adding later: “Among adolescents aged 12-17 years, the only pediatric age group for whom a COVID-19 vaccine is currently approved, hospitalization rates were approximately 10 times higher in unvaccinated compared with fully vaccinated adolescents, indicating that vaccines were highly effective at preventing serious COVID-19 illness in this age group during a period when the Delta variant predominated.”

Tan said: “Science shows that persons of any age, including infants and children, get infected with COVID-19 — there have been over 5 million children that have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic and with the surge in the Delta variant over the last several months there has been a significant increase in the number of children that have been infected — 252,000 in the last week. This has also resulted in a significant increase in the number of children that have required hospitalization for their infection.”

Makary, the Johns Hopkins University doctor Elder referenced, often gets quoted by vaccine skeptics such as Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). But Makary in every op-ed or interview states that the vaccine may prove safe and effective, arguing that more study is needed. For example, in a Wall Street Journal opinion article in July, Makary questioned the CDC’s methodology for counting covid-19 cases and deaths involving children, before adding near the end that “the vaccine’s benefits may outweigh its risks for healthy kids.”

Atlas, the other figure Elder cited, is a radiologist by training. He sat on President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force in 2020 and peddled false claims, such as saying that 85 percent of mask-wearers catch the coronavirus. Eighty-five percent of the Stanford University Faculty Senate voted to condemn his actions, including “showing disdain for established medical knowledge.” (The Hoover Institution, where Atlas is a senior fellow, is affiliated with Stanford.)

We asked what threshold of child deaths Elder was using to conclude these cases were unlikely. Elder spokeswoman Cindy Northon pointed to state-level reports compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association.

“Among states reporting, children ranged from 1.6%-4.1% of their total cumulated hospitalizations, and 0.1%-1.9% of all their child COVID-19 cases resulted in hospitalization,” the group reported as of Sept. 2, including data from 24 states and New York City.

Northon also pointed to the CDC’s guidance on children and covid-19: “Children can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and can get sick with COVID-19. Most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or they may have no symptoms at all (‘asymptomatic’). Fewer children have been sick with COVID-19 compared to adults. Babies younger than 1 and children with certain underlying medical conditions may be more likely to have serious illness from COVID-19. Some children have developed a rare but serious disease that is linked to COVID-19 called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C).”

Howard Kurtz, Fox News: “All right. You told the Sacramento Bee that you believe Joe Biden won the election fairly and squarely. But then in a radio interview you said, I want to take a mulligan on that. And you don’t believe that. So what’s your position?”

Elder: “I don’t believe the election was won fairly and squarely. And by the way, that quote was truncated. I also went on to say that there were shenanigans. We know there were shenanigans in Michigan, shenanigans in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania. We know the Hunter Biden story was spiked. And enough Biden voters say had they known about that Hunter Biden story that was spiked by Twitter and the New York Post had their own Twitter account shut down, enough Biden voters say had they known about that story they wouldn’t have voted for Biden.” (“Media Buzz” on Fox News, Sept. 5)

Elder “made numerous false statements” during an hour-long interview Aug. 3 with the McClatchy company’s California opinion staffs, including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee.

“He said President Barack Obama never attended public school (Obama attended a state elementary school in Indonesia); he said the California Environmental Quality Act was waived during construction of a stadium for the Sacramento Kings (the Legislature amended CEQA to expedite construction); he said Los Angeles and San Francisco’s district attorneys were appointed by Newsom (both Chesa Boudin and George Gascón were elected to their positions) and he said nearly 70% of Black children are ‘brought into the world without a father married to the mother’ (according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, 54.2% of Black children had either two unmarried parents or a single parent),” the Bee reported. Still, in this early August interview, Elder “told our board that he agreed that President Joe Biden was elected fair and square.”

In a matter of days, the GOP candidate changed his tune. Elder started raising the specter of election “shenanigans” in various swing states in 2020, and by the time of his “Media Buzz” interview on Fox News, had gone from “fair and square” to “I don’t believe the election was won fairly and squarely.”

We asked Elder’s campaign what cases in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin signaled election fraud. No evidence of fraud sufficient to overturn Biden’s victory in any state has emerged. Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, has said the Justice Department investigated various election claims and found no evidence to support Trump’s accusations.

Northon said: “Larry is simply referring to the need for election integrity. This is an ideal that should be non-controversial. It is a fact, for one, that state election laws were violated during the 2020 presidential election under the guise of covid.”

As an example, she said an “injunction was granted stopping the illegality of no-excuse absentee voting. Kelly v. Pennsylvania, No. 620 MD 2020 (PA Commonwealth Court).” But the injunction was vacated three days later and the case was dismissed by the state Supreme Court, because the plaintiffs waited more than a year to challenge a state law that brought no-excuse absentee voting to Pennsylvania. Most states (34) and the District of Columbia do not ask voters to give an excuse for mail or absentee voting.

Northon said that in Wisconsin, the Republican-controlled “legislature has appointed a special counsel to investigate serious wrongdoing.”

Elder also appeared to reference a poll conducted by a Republican firm. The November 2020 poll, sampled from opt-in Internet survey panels, included 1,750 people who said they voted for President Biden in seven competitive states. Poll respondents were asked whether they knew about eight news stories that the authors of the study contended “the liberal news media had failed to cover properly.” One story was a New York Post report about a laptop supposedly belonging to Hunter Biden, the president’s son.

Other questions were highly specific, drawn from deceptive Trump talking points, such as asking respondents whether they knew about the “33.1 percent” annualized rate of GDP growth during Trump’s last full quarter before the election. Some questions took a multipronged route to a yes-or-no answer, such as asking, “At the time you cast your vote for president, were you aware that Joe Biden chose as his running mate and successor Kamala Harris, rated the most left-wing senator in America, even more leftist than Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist?”

The group behind the study argued: “This lack of information proved crucial: One of every six Biden voters we surveyed (17%) said they would have abandoned the Democratic candidate had they known the facts about one or more of these news stories. A shift of this magnitude would have changed the outcome in all six of the swing states won by Joe Biden, and Donald Trump would have comfortably won a second term as president.”

“I’m not sure it’s because of climate change.” (Interview with ABC7 News San Francisco, Aug. 1)

Elder was asked about the scientific consensus that climate change is the big driver of California’s intensifying wildfires (other factors such as forest management play a smaller role).

He dismissed the consensus and, echoing another Trump claim, blamed the state for not clearing enough detritus. “He’s managed these fallen trees poorly, he’s not cleared the dry vegetation the way he said he would,” Elder said of Newsom.

Some California forests appear to have many more trees per acre than what is considered healthy, but more than half of the state’s forested land is managed by the federal government, and peer-reviewed studies have found consistently that the increased aridity from climate change is feeding the wildfires. (Aridity is permanent, while a drought is temporary.)

A 2016 study of western U.S. forests published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984.”

“We estimate that human-caused climate change contributed to an additional 4.2 million [hectares] of forest fire area during 1984-2015, nearly doubling the forest fire area expected in its absence,” the authors wrote. “Natural climate variability will continue to alternate between modulating and compounding anthropogenic increases in fuel aridity, but anthropogenic climate change has emerged as a driver of increased forest fire activity and should continue to do so while fuels are not limiting.”

A 2020 study in Environmental Research Letters found that climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme autumn wildfire conditions across California.

Researchers wrote: “State-wide increases in autumn temperature (∼1 °C) and decreases in autumn precipitation (∼30%) over the past four decades have contributed to increases in aggregate fire weather indices (+20%). As a result, the observed frequency of autumn days with extreme (95th percentile) fire weather — which we show are preferentially associated with extreme autumn wildfires — has more than doubled in California since the early 1980s.”

The Pinocchio Test

Elder has a Trumpish knack for delivering false and misleading claims. But a candidate for governor of the largest state in the country should show a basic command of the facts on the 2020 election, the coronavirus pandemic, the California economy and the science behind the state’s wildfires. He earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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