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Fact-checking Bernie Sanders and his 2016 campaign

By Adam Thorp July 25, 2016

As an independent senator from Vermont, we fact-checked Bernie Sanders just over a dozen times. Since his presidential ambitions came into view he’s accrued more than eighty more, a small sign of the large impact Sanders’s campaign has had on American politics.

The typical Sanders statement remained the same after his announcement: a shocking fact or statistic about American poverty and inequality. We checked them out — 103 times in total.

We’ve rated Sanders True, Mostly True and Half-True more than twice as often as we rated him False or Mostly False. Perhaps most remarkably, none of the statements we checked earned a Pants on Fire. Checking the usual suspects, we believe Sanders has the most fact-checks without a Pants on Fire rating of anyone measured on the Truth-O-Meter. (You can find information about our ratings here).

The issues

One of our most popular fact-checks of Sanders emphasized the gap in wealth between the rich and the rest. Sanders said that the Walton family — the family behind Walmart — was wealthier than 40% of Americans. This is true, based on the most recent available statistics, in part because debt leaves many Americans with a negative net worth.

Sanders also frequently compares the United States with other countries. In April, Sanders contrasted Baltimore neighborhoods with conditions in North Korea and the West Bank. On the statistics Sanders cited about health and economic well-being, quite a few parts of Baltimore fare worse than these places, though some of his numbers were a little out of date. Overall, we rated this statement Mostly True.

In a couple of cases, country-to-country comparisons have led Sanders astray. Sanders has repeatedly said that the United States spends twice as much per capita on health care spending as any other country. The point—that the United States spends more than any other country — stands, but it's not twice as much as, say, Switzerland or Norway. We first rated this in 2009, during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. Sanders repeated it in 2015, and we called it False each time. When Sanders later said the United States spent three times as much per capita as the United Kingdom and 50 percent more than France, we rated this more carefully crafted comparison True.

Sanders has also highlighted racial inequities in the United States. In February, Sanders pointed out that African-Americans lost half their wealth due to the financial crisis, which we rated True. In November 2015, Sanders said that more than half of black workers earned less than $15 an hour. The actual wage is slightly higher, so we rated that statement Mostly True.

During the Democratic primary debate in Flint, Mich., Sanders said, "I would say, ‘When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor.’ "

In light of the nearly 20 million white people under the poverty line, we rated the last part of this statement False; Sanders later said he had misspoken. Readers responded strongly to this and suggested we had treated a quote Sanders relayed from a Black Lives Matter Activist as his own thoughts, but upon reviewing the transcript, we stood by our ruling.

The campaign

We’ve fact-checked a number of statements about Sanders’ electability and position in the race.

Sanders said in early May that it was still possible for him to reach the number of delegates he needed to earn the nomination. Mathematically, he was right at the time, but he would have had to do very well in the remaining states, and due to this caveat we rated this Mostly True.

Sanders also had a talking point about how well he polled against Donald Trump. On the numbers, he was right. We noted, however, that the political scientists we spoke with were skeptical that those numbers would remain as strong under the concerted attack directed at the party nominee, and therefore we rated the statement Mostly True.

While Sanders may not have faced the twenty years of scrutiny and criticism that his primary opponent faced, Clinton was wrong to say, as she did in May, that Sanders had never faced a negative ad. He’d faced several, including an ad texted out to Clinton supporters by the Clinton campaign, so we rated this statement False.

We’ve fact-checked quite a few skirmishes between Clinton and Sanders. When Clinton called Sanders a reliable supporter of the National Rifle Association, we ruled her statement Mostly False. Because Sanders voted to limit the legal liability of gun manufacturers, Clinton said in April that he wanted to apply higher standards to toy guns than real guns. The legal situation is nuanced, and Clinton’s statement was not, so we rated the statement Half True.

In the other direction, Sanders attacked Clinton for supporting fracking. We rated this Mostly True because Clinton paired her support with calls for tighter regulation and local control.

When Sanders said, in April, that his campaign had released his tax returns "in the past," we looked at what they had made publicly available. At the time he made his statement, he had released a summary of his 2014 tax returns; he would later release the rest. When he made the statement, however, he had released much less than any other candidate in the race, Donald Trump aside. We rated his claim False.

We rated Sanders False when he said in February that "Not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real." At least four members of the Republican presidential field said they believed that climate change is real and man-made, and offered plans to fix it, though those plans were likely not to Sanders’s liking.

The strength of Sanders’s challenge to Clinton surprised pundits and the Democratic establishment, but one fact-check from 2013 suggests Sanders, at least, might have seen it coming. Sanders tweeted that six out of ten Americans wanted more equal distribution of income, a key issue in his campaign. We found that this was True, and had been for more nearly thirty years — a statistic that goes a long way toward demystifying Sanders’s appeal.


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Fact-checking Bernie Sanders and his 2016 campaign