Fact-check: The second Democratic debate 2019, Night 1

While 10 candidates hit the debate stage, here are the claims that hold up and the ones that don't.
The first 10 of 20 Democratic presidential candidates are geared up for the second round of presidential debates in Detroit.
The first 10 of 20 Democratic presidential candidates are geared up for the second round of presidential debates in Detroit.Robin Muccari / NBC News; Getty Images

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By Jane C. Timm and Adam Edelman

The first 10 Democratic presidential candidates took the stage at Detroit's Fox Theatre on Tuesday for the second round of presidential debates. As they defended their positions and attacked their opponents, NBC News fact checked their claims in real time.

Here's what they said that was true, less than true and flat-out false.

Does the climate reach a 'point of no return' in 2030?

"By 2030 we will have passed the point of no return on climate," Pete Buttigieg said Tuesday night in his closing statement. Earlier in the debate, he said that "science tells us we have 12 years before we reach the horizon of catastrophe when it comes to our climate."

He is exaggerating.

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change zeroed in on 2030 as an important climate date in their 2018 report, pointing to the global Paris Agreement that promises to reduce carbon emissions by that date. But the report does not label 2030 as the beginning of the end of the world or a point of catastrophe, as the mayor and media reports have done.

The more global warming is slowed by 2030, the better the globe will be able to handle the challenges of climate change, the U.N. report explains.

Does Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax pitch work out the way she says it does?

Warren pitched her wealth tax plan as just a drop in the bucket for the country's richest Americans on Tuesday night.

“Your first $50 million, you can keep free and clear. But your 50 millionth and first dollar, you got to pitch in two cents. Two cents,” she said.

But Kyle Pomerleau, an economist and tax policy expert at the Tax Foundation, noted on Twitter that her pitch is a bit misleading.

Pomerleau explained to NBC News after the debate that he evaluates the tax as an income tax. He said that an annual 2 percent tax — on an asset with a hypothetical 5 percent return annually — actually taxes about 40 percent of that asset's income. On an asset with a hypothetical 2 percent return, it could even be a 100 percent tax on that asset's income.

Of course, this only applies to uber-rich Americans' wealth above $50 million. But a 2 percent tax wealth does — at times — look more sizable when you consider it like an income tax.

Would that wealth tax proposal be unconstitutional?

John Delaney, a millionaire, said Warren's wealth tax proposal could be "unconstitutional."

"I think the wealth tax will be fought in court forever. It’s arguably unconstitutional and the countries that have had it have largely abandoned it because it’s impossible to implement,” Delaney said.

Tax experts have in fact argued this, though not definitively.

The Constitution places limits on the federal government's ability to levy taxes and Congress previously had to enact the 16th Amendment to impose taxes on income. Other types of taxes have to be apportioned among the states by population, which could be difficult to reconcile with Warren’s plan.

“So the question is, what is and is not a direct tax?” analysts for the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that studies tax policy, asked in January.

The group’s analysis points out several Supreme Court rulings on the issue. Some rulings struck down taxes deemed "direct," while other taxes, such as inheritance and estate taxes, were upheld by the high court on the grounds that they were “indirect taxes on the transfer of wealth.” Other taxes, like corporate income taxes, were also upheld on the basis of involving transactions. The Warren wealth tax does not involve transactions, the analysis points out.

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“I’d argue that the term ‘direct tax’ is a proxy for incidence, as there’s solid evidence from the Founders that’s what they were getting at by using the term,” the Tax Foundation’s Joseph Bishop-Henchman wrote. "Based on that and the precedents, my inclination is that Warren’s proposal would be found unconstitutional. But it's not a slam-dunk case, as the precedents go both ways."

Anticipating the issue, Warren's office said she consulted with outside legal scholars ahead of the proposal's release, and over a dozen affirmed that it passed constitutional muster.

Do three people own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent of America?

“You’ve got 3 people who own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent,” Bernie Sanders said on Tuesday.

This is false.

Sanders flubbed one of his regular talking points — that three people have more wealth than the bottom half of the nation.

We've fact checked the original talking point before, and it’s true that three people — Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett — are estimated to have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the American population, according to a report by the left-leaning think tank Institute for Policy Studies. But it's not correct that these Americans own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

Did Bernie Sanders support a public option bill?

Klobuchar, getting in a dig at Sanders during an exchange about health care plans, said that the Vermont independent supported a state Medicaid public option bill last year. (Sanders' signature health care plan is, of course, "Medicare for All.")

This is true. He co-sponsored a bill from Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

Did 25-30 percent of Steve Bullock's voters also vote for Trump?

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, touting his ability to win in a red state, that "25 to 30 percent" of people who voted for him in 2016 also voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

This appears true. Montana didn’t have any exit polling so there isn’t an exact figure the Democratic governor could point to, but Bullock outperformed Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 78,000 votes — roughly 30 percent of his overall total.

Third party candidates saw about 20,000 votes in Montana’s 2016 election, so conservatively — assuming that many Bullock voters also chose a third-party candidate for president or perhaps chose not to cast a ballot in the presidential race at all — at least 22 percent of his voters likely cast a ballot for Trump.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of both nights of the second Democratic debate.

Do the vast majority of Republicans support background checks?

"Ninety percent of Republicans want universal background checks," claimed Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Tuesday night, later adding that the majority of Americans overall want universal background checks, too.

This is mostly true, though the data point is actually higher, according to recent Quinnipiac polls. In a 2019 survey, 92 percent of Republicans said they supported background checks for all gun buyers; last year, it was 97 percent of Republicans.

Overall, 94 percent of Americans supported background checks this year in the Quinnipiac survey.

Do Americans pay 10 times more for insulin than Canadians?

"When I went to Canada the other day, people paid 1/10th the price of insulin that they’re paying in the U.S," Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed Tuesday night.

Americans do pay 10 times more than Canadians for insulin, according to the reports documenting Americans who drive across the border to purchase the lower-priced insulin. The cost of insulin for treating Type 1 diabetes nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute.

Do 'we pay more' for drugs than 'any place in the world,' as Bullock said?

"We pay more for prescription drugs than any place, actually, in the world. We’ve got nothing to show for it," Bullock said during a round of questions about health care.

Close. Americans pay more for drugs than people in any other developed country in the world, CNBC reported, citing recent studies.

Bullock also suggested that the U.S. should negotiate drug prices in order to help Americans afford their meds. It's currently illegal to do so. Federal law bars the government from negotiating drug prices, so Congress would have to change the law for this to become possible. Experts also argue that the government would need more tools than just the power to negotiate to really deliver savings.

Did Amazon make billions and pay zero in federal taxes, as Bernie Sanders claimed?

Sanders opened with a broadside against Amazon. "Tonight as we speak right now, 500,000 Americans are sleeping out on the street, and yet companies like Amazon that made billions in profits did not pay one nickel in federal income tax," he said.

He's right, according to an analysis of corporate filings put out by the progressive think tank Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP.)

The analysis did not review state and local taxes, however.

Did John Hickenlooper expand health care and reproductive rights?

Hickenlooper said in his opening remarks that he “expanded health care and reproductive rights” when he was governor of Colorado.

This is true, but there's more to the story.

Hickenlooper is referring to the effects of the the Colorado Family Planning Initiative — a state program that provided IUDs or birth control implants at little or no cost for low-income women. But Hickenlooper would be hard-pressed to take all of the credit for it. The program was put in place in 2009 — two years before he took office.

When it comes to health care, Hickenlooper, using a provision in the Affordable Care Act, expanded Medicaid in Colorado to such a degree that, according to his campaign website, “95 percent of Coloradans have health care coverage.”

A reputable survey in the state from 2017, the latest data published — the Colorado Health Access Survey — found that 93.5 percent of Coloradans had health insurance, an “all-time” high for the state because of the expansion.

Jonathan Allen and Carrie Dann contributed.