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Fact-checking the Democratic debate in Flint, Mich.
Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll March 7, 2016
C. Eugene Emery Jr.
By C. Eugene Emery Jr. March 7, 2016
Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin March 7, 2016
Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 7, 2016
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 7, 2016
Linda Qiu
By Linda Qiu March 7, 2016
Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders March 7, 2016

This story has been updated with fact-checks as we completed them.

The Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., surfaced sharp differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the auto bailout, international trade agreements and Wall Street campaign donations.

One thing they did have in common: Decrying the multi-agency breakdowns that created the host city's poisoned-water crisis. Clinton and Sanders called for Gov. Rick Snyder's resignation and said more must be done to improve the country's infrastructure.

Here are our fact-checks from the March 6 matchup.


Lead poisoning not limited to Flint

Clinton said Flint isn’t the only place where serious action is needed.

"We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate," Clinton said. "We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint."

Really? Her statement rates Mostly True.

Residents of Flint have been consuming tap water with lead since 2014, when the city switched its water source to the polluted Flint River to save money. In 2015, 4 percent of all kids and 6.3 percent of kids in high-risk areas had elevated blood lead levels, according to an analysis by Monica Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Children’s Hospital.

Clinton has a point that many other American cities are dealing with the toxin. Lead-contaminated tap water has run through faucets in Washington, D.C., Durham, N.C., Lakehurst Acres, Maine, Jackson, Miss., and other places throughout the years.

But in most places — including Cleveland — lead poisoning elsewhere is mainly due to lead-based paint in older houses. In Cleveland, a whopping 14.2 percent of kids tested at the reference level in 2014, according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. In the county, 10.3 percent of kids had elevated blood levels.

Later in the debate, Clinton clarified that lead poisoning around the country doesn't just come from water.

Debating water rates

Sanders also weighed in on the Flint water crisis, saying officials needed to be held accountable for years of mismanagement — including overcharging residents for utilities. 

"You are paying three times more for poison water than I am paying in Burlington, Vt., for clean water," Sanders said.

We rated his statement Mostly True.

Going back to January 2015, we found annual bills for the average Flint household were three times as much as Burlington, as long as we included both water rates and Flint's meter charges. 

But a judge rolled Flint’s rates back in August 2015, so people there are now paying a bit more than twice as much as people in Burlington.

Still, we decided Sanders had a point that Flint’s water bills were and still are gallingly expensive. 

Sanders overshoots on NAFTA job losses

After Clinton laid out how she would boost industrial jobs in America, partly by going after companies that aim to shift production overseas, Sanders accused her of finding "religion on this issue, but it’s a little bit too late."

"Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America," Sanders said. "NAFTA, supported by the secretary, cost us 800,000 jobs nationwide, tens of thousands of jobs in the Midwest."

NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993. It significantly reduced trade tariffs among the United States, Mexico and Canada. Hillary Clinton obviously had no vote on the deal, but in 1996, during her husband’s presidency, she did say "I think NAFTA is proving its worth." Since then, she has said it "has not delivered" and should be fixed.

Our focus is whether in fact, the trade deal caused the loss of 800,000 American jobs. And on that, there is scant proof. We rate Sanders' statement Mostly False.

The Sanders campaign pointed us to work by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. A 2014 report from the group found that from 1993 to 2013, "the U.S. trade deficit with Mexico and Canada increased from $17 (billion) to $177.2 billion, displacing 851,700 U.S. jobs. All of the net jobs displaced were due to growing trade deficits with Mexico."

But other analyses say the impacts were much less dramatic.

The Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan policy arm of Congress, summarized a number of studies on NAFTA’s legacy. That report said it is difficult to tease out the effects of the trade deal by itself. Factors such as economic growth, inflation and changes in exchange rates cloud the waters. That said, the report struck a measured tone.

"NAFTA did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters," the report said. "The net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest."

Part of what makes the legacy of NAFTA challenging to assess is that in the last year of his presidency, Bill Clinton signed legislation granting China permanent normal trade relations. From 2000 on, this had an enormous impact on trade between the two nations. That overlaps with about half the period when analysts have tried to gauge the effect of NAFTA.

Obama + Wall Street

Just because you've taken money from Wall Street doesn't mean you can't regulate Wall Street, Clinton argued. Clinton was responding to Sanders' attack that she has taken too much money from Wall Street.

Clinton countered Sunday night that the case of President Barack Obama shows you can take Wall Street's money and be tough on them, too.

"President Obama took more money from Wall Street in the 2008 campaign than anybody ever had," she said. "And when it came time to stand up to Wall Street, he passed and signed the toughest regulations since the Great Depression, with the Dodd-Frank regulations."

Adjusting for inflation, Obama garnered about $3 million more than George W. Bush if you look at the broad "finance, insurance and real estate" sector. But using the "securities and investment" category, a tighter measure of Wall Street contributions, Obama clearly set a new record in 2008.

Yet that record only lasted four years. Mitt Romney upped that ante by $5 million in 2012.

Because the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate it Mostly True.

Sanders on white Americans and poverty

At one point in the debate, CNN’s Don Lemon asked both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders the same question: "In a speech about policing," Lemon said, "the FBI director, James Comey, borrowed a phrase saying, ‘Everyone is a little bit racist.’ What racial blind spot do you have?"

When it was Sanders’ turn to answer, he began by talking about several specific examples of racial discrimination. He then drew a contrast with what whites experience.  

"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. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car," Sanders said.

Sanders' point was that white people haven’t had to contend with racism based on skin color. But when he moves into the subject of whites’ experience with poverty, he’s on weak ground. Sanders’ suggestion that white Americans haven’t experienced poverty is undercut by statistics calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2014, there were actually more white Americans in poverty -- 19.7 million -- than members of any other group.

Part of the reason, of course, is that there are more white Americans than there are members of minority groups overall. (Whites account for 62 percent of the population.) Still, even though whites have a lower poverty rate than other groups -- roughly 10 percent -- even that percentage is hardly trivial.

We rated his statement False.

Sanders and the auto bailout

In one of the more heated exchanges of the night, Clinton said Sanders didn’t support the bailout that saved the auto industry, which has a substantial presence in Michigan.

She said he "was against the auto bailout" and "voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry."

Basically, Sanders had two opportunities to show his support for auto bailout funds through Senate votes. He supported the bailout in one instance but not the other.

He voted in favor of providing auto companies with $14 billion, but that standalone measure failed. He then voted against a set of funds that financed most of the auto bailout — though the funds’ primary purpose was bailing out Wall Street firms, which Sanders strongly opposed.

The claim, though, leaves listeners with the impression that Sanders’ opposed the general idea of bailing out the auto industry, so we rated the claim Half True

Sanders on his electability vs. Trump

To potential supporters who worry about his viability as a general-election candidate, Sanders has often pointed to polls showing him doing better against Republican frontrunner Donald Trump than Clinton does.

"I would love to run against Donald Trump, and I’ll tell you why," Sanders said. "For a start, … not all, but almost every poll has shown that Sanders vs. Trump does a lot better than Clinton vs. Trump. …  And, that’s true nationally."

Of the seven polls in 2016 that tested both Democratic candidates, Sanders ran stronger against Trump in six of them. (In one case, the USA Today/Suffolk poll, Trump beat both, but beat Sanders by slightly less.)

Case closed? Not quite, say polling experts.

Clinton has been scrutinized and attacked as a public figure for a quarter century, but Sanders is a relatively new figure to voters nationally. So while a lot of voters’ minds are already made up about Clinton based on her long history in the public eye, it remains to be seen how open potential voters will be to supporting Sanders once Republicans start airing negative attacks, especially ones that note his identification as a democratic socialist. (We have previously reported that, according to polls, being a socialist is a less attractive quality for voters than being an atheist.)

"Very few Americans are making these comparisons yet, so opinion about these choices is likely to be weakly held, particularly for a large number of middle-of-the-road, independent, and disinterested Americans who are not participating in primaries and caucuses," said Steven S. Smith, a Washington University political scientist and a specialist in public opinion.

The statement is accurate but needs additional context, so we rated it Mostly True.

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Fact-checking the Democratic debate in Flint, Mich.