Democratic Debate fact-check: 10 candidates take the stage in Houston

Here's what the candidates said that was true, less than true and flat-out false.
The third Democratic debate, hosted by ABC, is taking place in Houston with 10 candidates on stage.
The third Democratic debate, hosted by ABC, is taking place in Houston with 10 candidates on stage.Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Getty Images

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By Jane C. Timm and Adam Edelman

For the first time, the 2020 Democratic presidential debate field was culled to just 10 qualifiers, meaning they competed on a single stage on the same night in Houston Thursday.

Voters finally got the chance to see front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont face off against one another — and we fact-checked all the candidates' statements in real time.

See all the claims and the facts below.

Is America's child poverty rate one of the highest in the world?

At one point, Sanders claimed, "We have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on Earth."

This is hyperbole — there are numerous less-developed nations with higher child poverty rates.

America's child poverty rate is above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, but a slew of other countries have even higher child poverty rates, including Russia, Spain, India, Israel, Brazil and China.

Are teachers in Japan paid better than American teachers?

Pete Buttigieg told a story about a Japanese exchange student in Indiana who returned to her home country and, after failing to pass a teacher’s exam, became a doctor — seeming to imply that teachers in Japan are compensated on par with those in the medical profession.

“She took the exam to try to become a teacher in a society that really regards teachers and compensates teachers well. And she came up just short. So, you know what she did? Since she was academically good but couldn't quite make the cut to be a teacher, she had a fall-back plan, she became a doctor. That is how seriously some countries treat the teaching profession. If we want to get the results that we expect for our children, we have to support and compensate the teaching profession. Respect teachers the way we do soldiers and pay them more like the way we do doctors,” Buttigieg said.

According to data from the intergovernmental Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), American teachers are actually paid better than Japanese teachers.

Primary school teachers in Japan with 15 years' experience make approximately $51,000 USD a year. American primary school teachers with the same level of experience make approximately $62,000 a year.

Luxembourg might have been a better example: teachers at this level make $104,000 a year.

Would a filibuster-free Senate have saved bills on background checks and assault weapons ban in 2013?

Elizabeth Warren, in defending her campaign position that she would roll back the legislative filibuster — a move that would allow Senate bills to advance to a full vote with a simple majority instead of the 60 the modern filibuster requires to end debate on a bill and move on to the vote — made the claim that “we’re not going to get anything done on guns” without her proposed rollback.

“I was in the United States Senate when 54 senators said let's do background checks, let's get rid of assault weapons, and with 54 senators, it failed because of the filibuster,” she said.

This isn’t exactly true. Warren appears to be conflating two separate votes.

In 2013, following the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Senate held several votes on gun control bills. At the time, Democrats (as well as Independents that aligned with Democrats) controlled 55 seats in the Senate.

One vote was for a bill to expand and strengthen background checks on gun sales. Another vote was for a bill to ban assault weapons. Both failed. The so-called “Manchin-Toomey” compromise on background checks failed 54-46, meaning it could have passed a filibuster-free Senate, as Warren claimed Thursday.

But only 40 senators voted for the assault weapons ban (it failed 60-40), meaning a filibuster-free Senate could have not saved it.

Do 90 percent of Americans want to ban assault weapons?

"Over 90 percent of the American people think we have to get assault weapons off the street — period. And we have to get buybacks and get them out of their basements," Biden said during Thursday night's debate.

This is an exaggeration. Americans tend to support banning the sale of assault rifles, but mandatory buybacks are another question.

According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll conducted last month, 70 percent of Americans said they support banning assault-style weapons. A Monmouth University survey this month found that 56 percent of Americans approve of a ban on assault rifles, but support falls dramatically when it comes to giving up the guns they already own. Just 43 percent of respondents supported a mandatory buyback program in the Monmouth survey.

And when Gallup asked in 2018 if respondents would be “for or against” a law making it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles, just 40 percent of respondents said they favored such a law.

Was Cory Booker's statistic on lead poisoning in American children correct?

"There’s over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels than Flint, Michigan," Booker said.

This is accurate, according to studies published in the past few years.

A 2016 analysis by Reuters of lead testing results across the U.S. found almost 3,000 neighborhoods with lead poisoning rates in children at least double of those in Flint. Reuters continued conducting their analysis into 2017, and an updated study published that year found that the number had increased to more than 3,800.

Do the majority of gun deaths occur in urban areas?

"The majority of homicide victims come from neighborhoods like mine," Booker said, referencing his Newark, New Jersey, home during a discussion on gun violence.

This is true. According to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2015-2016, 63 percent of firearm homicides occurred in a metropolitan area.

Are 30 million people uninsured in America, as Kamala Harris said?

“Right now, 30 million Americans don’t have coverage,” Harris said of the state of health care in the U.S. Thursday night.

This is mostly true. The Census Bureau released data this week that found that 27.5 million people were uninsured for all of 2018, while another 10.6 million reported they had health care for less than the entire year. The number of uninsured Americans rose from 2017.

Did America lose 4 million jobs due to NAFTA and trade relations with China, as Sanders claimed?

Sanders said the effects of NAFTA, combined with the effects of granting “permanent normal trade relations” status to China, often referred to as PNTR, cost the U.S. 4 million jobs.

“Joe and I strongly disagree on trade. I helped lead the opposition, the NAFTA, the PNTR, which cost this country over 4 million good-paying jobs,” Sanders said of Biden's views.

This appears to be true, according to several reputable analyses. As NBC News’ Carrie Dann reported in February during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, job losses resulting from NAFTA tend to be overstated — but one major study found that more than 850,000 jobs were displaced by the pact.

Robert E. Scott of the pro-labor Economic Policy Institute found that about 851,700 U.S. jobs were displaced by the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico between 1993 (shortly before NAFTA was implemented) and 2014. That’s a data point that was cited by Sanders during his 2016 campaign, when he frequently decried job losses due to NAFTA. (Other studies, however, have found the job losses to be far less.)

When it comes to granting PNTR status to China, which President George W. Bush formally granted in 2001 after China entered the World Trade Organization, U.S. job losses have been larger, according to studies.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service wrote in 2018, citing a 2014 study by the Economic Policy Institute, that “growth in the U.S. goods trade deficit with China between 2001 and 2013 eliminated or displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs (three-fourths of which were in manufacturing).”

If you add the 851,700 figure with the 3.2 million figure, you would see a figure that approximates the 4 million figure that Sanders referred to Thursday night.

Does the U.S. spend twice as much on health care as 'any other major country on Earth'?

"Let us be clear Joe, in the United States of America, we are spending twice as much per capita on health care as the Canadians and any other major country on Earth," Sanders said on Thursday.

Overall, this claim is exaggerated. The U.S. actually spent more than twice as much per capita on health care as Canada, but the nation isn't spending twice as much as "any other major country on Earth."

The U.S. spends $10,586 per capita on health care, according to data from the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It's twice as much — or more — per capita on health care as many other countries, but not all of them. Switzerland, for instance, pays $7,317 per capita. The U.S. also far outspends countries like Russia, which spends $1,514 on health care per capita.

Did Obama not put people in cages, as Biden claims?

"Comparing [Obama] to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages, we didn’t separate families, we didn’t do all of those things,” Biden said, defending the Obama administration’s record on immigration after a question about deportations.

Biden is half right. The Obama administration did detain people in cage-like structures, earning criticism from activists. Last year, Democratic activists circulated photos of children inside chain link fenced spaces in an attack on President Donald Trump, only for onlookers to later realize the photos were from 2014.

Biden is correct to say that the Obama administration did not separate families as a policy. The Obama administration detained whole families together, while the Trump administration made it a policy last year to detain children, including babies and toddlers, without their parents, leaving other children to tend to them and sometimes losing track of their parents.

Would Biden's health care plan leave 10 million uncovered?

“The problem with your plan is that it leaves 10 million people uncovered,” Julián Castro said during Thursday’s debate, criticizing Biden's health care proposal.

This is mostly true, according to the text of Biden's own plan. His plan estimates that his expansion of the Affordable Care Act would insure "more than an estimated 97 percent of Americans."

There’s an estimated 327 million people living in America; 3 percent of the population is approximately 10 million. Estimates on the number of non-citizens vary, and it's unclear how Biden's proposal would affect immigrant communities in practice, which could change these numbers. Still, Biden has said he wants to give everyone a chance to be covered.

Are there three gun control bills waiting 'on Mitch McConnell’s desk,' as Amy Klobuchar claims?

Klobuchar poked at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for inaction on gun control measures, saying that the Kentucky Republican has three bills on his desk right now: "Universal background checks, closing the Charleston loophole, and passing my bill to make sure domestic abusers don’t get AK-47s.”

This is true — but all three bills face an unclear, if not flat-out bleak, fate in the GOP-controlled Senate.

In February, the Democratic-controlled House passed a law closing the so-called “Charleston loophole,” which allows the sale of a firearm to proceed if a background check is not completed within three days. It’s a loophole that allowed Dylann Roof to obtain his weapon with which he murdered nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

In March, the House passed a bill that would expand background checks for gun purchases to include buys made at gun shows, online and other private sales. And in April, the House voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act with new language that would close the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” Under current law, it is illegal for spouses or ex-spouses who have been convicted of abuse or who are under a restraining order to buy a gun. But the law doesn’t apply to romantic partners who aren’t legally married.

Are African Americans almost four times more likely to be incarcerated?

Booker, talking about a "savagely broken" criminal justice system, said, “African Americans are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated” than other Americans.

He's right — in fact, it’s more than four times when it comes to white Americans.

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated more than five times the rate of whites. And according to a 2018 analysis by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and research group, African Americans are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites.

Biden claims Sanders' health care plan would cost twice the federal budget. Is that true?

Drawing a contrast between his health care plan and Sanders' "Medicare For All" plan, Biden said, “My plan for health care costs $740 billion dollars, it doesn’t cost $30 trillion dollars. $3.4 trillion a year, turns out, is twice what the entire federal budget is, that’s before it exists now, without interest on the debt."

Biden's math is off. While Medicare For All could cost $3.4 trillion a year, according to one estimate, the federal budget is larger: in 2018, the federal budget was $4.1 trillion, including $300 billion going toward interest.

Additionally, Biden's campaign estimates the cost of the candidate's plan at $750 billion over a decade, while estimates have put the cost of Sanders' plan at $32 trillion or more over a decade.

Does Medicare For All cost less than the current system?

Sanders, amid a contentious back-and-forth about "Medicare for All" with Biden and Warren, said that "every study done shows that 'Medicare for All' is the most cost-effective approach for providing health care to every man woman and child in this country."

This isn't true. A handful of studies do show Sanders' plan to be a more cost-effective alternative to the current system — but even more indicate the opposite. Sanders’ Medicare for All plan would insure an additional 28 million people, so it’d be a huge selling point if it was also cheaper than the current system.

But of five major Medicare for All studies reviewed in detail by The New York Times, just two found overall health care expenditures would be lower than current costs. And what's more, there are sizable variables that could affect the math should his plan be implemented.

Elizabeth Janowski and Olivia Roos contributed.