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Fact-checking Hillary Clinton’s book 'What Happened'
Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg September 14, 2017

Hillary Clinton might have become America’s first woman president, but she didn’t, and her book What Happened is her explanation of why.

Clinton writes about details as minor as eating pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair (and liking it) and as damaging as her statement during a CNN town hall that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," (which she called "garbled" and "the exact opposite" of her plan to foster jobs in coal country).

The book is part personal memoir, part political science treatise, part self-defense of a failed campaign and part strategy session for Democratic politicians to come.

We’ll leave it to the pundits to assess whether she lived up to the promise in her introduction that she is "letting down my guard." For us at PolitiFact, Clinton’s book is a trove of checkable claims. She is a self-confessed wonk, and her references to research and statistics range from the mundane to the deepest undercurrents that shape our politics.

Our fact-checker’s guide to her book follows that eclectic mix.

"The fact-checking organization PolitiFact, which found I told the truth more than any other presidential candidate in 2016 ..."

Okay, first we did what anyone did and searched for our name. We found it!

The mention of PolitiFact comes in reference to a March 2016 column by former New York Times editor Jill Abramson, who said Clinton was "fundamentally honest."

The truth is Clinton is right depending on how you calculate truth.

We fact-checked Clinton 196 times from the moment she announced her candidacy in the spring of 2015 through Election Day 2016.

Of those 196 fact-checks, 100 rated True or Mostly True. That means 51 percent of Clinton claims we fact-checked were basically accurate.

Of candidates we fact-checked at least 50 times, only one did better: Sen. Bernie Sanders. Nearly 52 percent of the claims we checked from Sanders rated True or Mostly True.

Clinton, however, does better if you only count True statements that we rated. There, it’s Clinton 19 percent, Sanders 11 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio 10 percent, and Sen. Ted Cruz 9 percent.

Last point, and it’s a big one: We don’t check every statement a politician makes. So any comparison is problematic.

"I failed to win a majority of white women, although I did better with them than Obama did in 2012."

Clinton is correct, but her comparison to Barack Obama’s numbers in 2012 obscures a more sobering comparison. Yes, exit polls show that 42 percent of white women picked Obama in 2012. But Clinton’s 43 percent is less than other Democrats in recent memory.

Here’s the list for past Democrats:

Obama 2008 -- 46 percent

Kerry 2004 -- 45 percent

Clinton 1996 -- 48 percent

While Clinton’s statement is technically accurate, there’s a bit of cherry-picking going on.

"Fewer Americans are moving than ever before."

Clinton struggled to connect with working-class voters and she opened a chapter on the subject with her quote about coal mining jobs. She said the fallout from that remark buried her broader message of what needed to be done, and this chapter became her chance to have the last word.

But as she laid out how and where she would have targeted investment, she cautioned that people need to keep their expectations in check.

"In some places, the old jobs aren’t coming back, and the infrastructure and workforce needed to support big new industries aren’t there," she wrote. "As hard as it is, people may have to leave their hometowns and look for work elsewhere in America."

As a sign of how tough the challenge is, she noted, "fewer Americans are moving than ever before."

That’s accurate.

The U.S. Census Bureau said in November, "The percentage of Americans moving over a one-year period fell to an all time low in the United States to 11.2 percent in 2016." A further study by the Pew Research Center found that millennials, people between the ages of 25 and 35, play a large role in that trend. In 1963 and 2000, 26 percent of people that age had moved in the past year. In 2016, just 20 percent said they had.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
At historic low
"Fewer Americans are moving than ever before."
In Clinton's book 'What Happened'
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
"In 2008, Trump raised eyebrows by selling a mansion in Palm Beach to a Russian oligarch at an inflated price – $54 million more than he paid for it just four years earlier."

Clinton’s got the mark-up right. Donald Trump bought the Maison de l’Amitié in Palm Beach, Fla., at a bankruptcy auction in 2004 for $41.3 million. He sold it just before the market crash in 2008 for $95 million to Dmitry Rybolovlev, a Russian billionaire who made his money in the fertilizer business.

At the time Trump said, "This is the highest price ever paid for a house."

Clinton presented this nugget as an indication of Trump’s cozy ties with Russia. The New York Times offered the theory that Rybolovlev was aiming to tie up money as he went through a contentious divorce.

"The Women's March was the biggest single protest in American history."

Two researchers reached this conclusion by compiling publicly reported estimates and crowdsourced information submitted from around the country. They said the many marches around the country on Jan. 21, 2017, brought about 4.1 million people to the streets in the United States.

That appears to be a record, but we’re dealing with imprecise estimates.

The closest competitors were the Vietnam War Moratorium marches in 1969 and 1970 which involved about a million people in the United States. A similar number came out to protest the Iraq War in 2003. Earth Day in 1970 posted large numbers, but most of that, the researchers said, included workshops and science fairs.

Another review of large American protests included the 1997 Million Woman March, the 1982 anti-nuclear weapons march in New York City and the 1993  March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. While some estimated the numbers at or above 1 million people, they all would be less than the American turnout for the Women’s March.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
It topped the list
"The Women's March was the biggest single protest in American history."
In Clinton's book 'What Happened'
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
"Research now shows that (hot sauce) boosts the immune system."

This tracks back to someone who wrote a book called Hot Sauce Nation, so, dare we say, take it with a grain of salt. But in any case, chilies contain folic acid, and Vitamins A, E and C, all of which have been associated with a stronger immune system. We don’t think the link to hot sauce per se has been peer reviewed.

"No non-incumbent Democrat had run successfully to succeed another two-termer since Vice President Martin Van Buren won in 1836."

Call it the Democratic curse. Martin Van Buren, a founder of the Democratic Party, became the eighth president, succeeding Andrew Jackson. Some might quibble that at the time, party names were somewhat in flux and the term Democratic Republicans could still be heard, but Van Buren was a Democrat.

"Today, when you type ‘Pat Schroeder’ into Google, the very first suggestion is ‘Pat Schroeder crying.’"

Clinton’s point here was that women politicians are covered differently than men, and crying is one of the markers. When politicians such as Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama welled up, Clinton said they were treated with compassion.

"But when a woman cries, it can be viewed far less charitably," she wrote.

We tried the Schroeder test. Clinton’s right.

For comparison, the most famous crier in a presidential race was perhaps Ed Muskie in 1972. Here’s his showing on Google:

This isn’t high-end social science, but Clinton got Schroeder’s Google results right.

"There had been 75 straight months of job growth under President Obama and incomes for the bottom 80% were finally starting to go up."

Looking back over the years, Clinton said "the American middle class really had gotten screwed," but she lashed Trump for "rubbing salt in their wounds."

"He was wrong about so much," she wrote. "There had been 75 straight months of job growth under President Obama and incomes for the bottom 80 percent were finally starting to go up."

Government numbers back her up.

As we’ve reported before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 75 consecutive months of job growth under Obama.  The U.S Census Bureau said that in 2015, real median household income rose 5.2 percent. Looking at quintiles (the income groups broken down into five equal number of households), all except the top quintile rose, if only modestly between 2014 and 2015.

The only catch is that when the bureau factored in household size, there was a 0.1 percent drop for the fourth quintile. That dilutes Clinton’s claim by a hair, but strictly in terms of incomes, she was correct.

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PolitiFact rating logo PolitiFact Rating:
Official numbers agree
"There had been 75 straight months of job growth under President Obama and incomes for the bottom 80% were finally starting to go up."
In Clinton's book 'What Happened'
Tuesday, September 12, 2017
"Texas has defunded Planned Parenthood and refused to expand Medicaid, and maternal mortality doubled between 2010 and 2014."

On the right to have an abortion, Clinton said, "There’s overwhelming evidence about what happens when these rights are denied."

"Texas has defunded Planned Parenthood and refused to expand Medicaid, and maternal mortality doubled between 2010 and 2014," she wrote.

A September 2016 article in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology reported the jump in the Texas maternal mortality rate. It went from 18.6 deaths per 100,000 live births to 35.8. The study authors wrote that no other state saw such a rapid rise, nor did they find any change in how the state collected the data that explained it.

They did note that "there were some changes in the provision of women’s health services in Texas from 2011 to 2015, including the closing of several women’s health clinics."

Texas has not expanded Medicaid and it did cut family planning funding by two-thirds (from $111 million to $37.9 million) in 2011. It largely restored the money in 2013, but by 2014, over 80 family planning clinics had closed or stopped offering those services.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the rate of childbirths covered by Medicaid rose between 2011 and 2014.

But the link between the funding cut and the rise in maternal mortality rate is unproven. The events took place at the same time but that doesn’t necessarily mean one caused the other.

There also is some dispute over the data. There are long-standing issues of reporting deaths and the researchers used statistical methods to adjust rates since 2000. No one, however, disputes that Texas saw a rise in its maternal mortality rate.

Says there’s been "a decline of serious reporting on policy" and "it got much worse in 2016."

Calling herself "an unapologetic policy wonk," Clinton bemoaned the triumph of superficial news over true substance. For her, the main impact was too much coverage of her email troubles and too little of immigration, taxes, trade and other big policy issues.

Specifically, she wrote, "In 2008, the major networks’ nightly newscasts spent a total of 220 minutes on policy. In 2012, it was 114 minutes. In 2016, it was just 32 minutes."

This traces back to the work of Andrew Tyndall, a private analyst who logs what the three major networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- cover each evening on their national news broadcasts. Tyndall’s stats rely on his personal judgment but his work is cited regularly by media reporters.

A separate, broader analysis of general election news coverage lends further weight to Clinton’s complaint. A report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy found that the policy positions of the candidates accounted for 10 percent of all news stories.

"Studies have documented how big an impact (new restrictions on voting) had on the outcome."

Clinton took aim at voting laws that she claimed targeted Democratic-leaning voters, including students, poor people, the elderly and people of color. She said "states with harsh new voting laws, such as Wisconsin, saw turnout dip 1.7 points, compared with a 1.3 point increase in states where the law didn’t change."

The fact is, different researchers have reached different conclusions.

A study published in the Journal of Politics compared states with strict ID laws and those without. In terms of overall turnout, they found no significant difference. On the other hand, they found that these laws drove down turnout among racial and ethnic minorities.

However, when other researchers reviewed that study, they found problems with the underlying data. This second group said the data problems made firm conclusions impossible.

Clinton cited a study from Priorities USA that estimated that Wisconsin’s Voter ID law cut turnout by 200,000 votes. Priorities USA Action is a PAC that supported Obama and Clinton. When PolitiFact Wisconsin took a look at that study, it found several prominent political scientists criticized it as badly flawed.

Wisconsin’s law might have had an impact but it was impossible to quantify based on the information at hand.

Clinton cherry-picked her studies and reached a conclusion that many experts say has yet to be proved.

"Once (Trump) became president, he turned his back on everyone who needed help by seeking to cut money for (opioid) treatment."

Teasing out what the Trump administration wants for opioid treatment is more complicated than looking at the dollars allocated in a single budget line. In May, his 2018 request called for an additional $200 million for drug treatment, but the same budget document showed proposed cuts of over $300 million from two key agencies, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Treatment advocates have suggested that the net gain comes from $500 million that was approved, but not appropriated, in the last full month of the Obama administration.

On the other hand, in August, Trump declared that the opioid crisis was a national emergency, a designation that opened the door for additional funding to state and federal agencies. (Clinton said she put the final touches on her book in July, so the August announcement might have come after the final version was sent to the printers.)

One of the greatest uncertainties about Trump’s intentions involves Medicaid spending. He called for slower growth in Medicaid, which experts believe would likely cut into drug treatment. Over the years, the difference added up to billions of dollars. There’s grounds for concern.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said one out of three people being treated for opioid addiction get some sort of help from Medicaid to pay for it, we rated that Mostly True.

Clinton might have gone too far in her condemnation of Trump, but his support for money to treat opioid addiction is at best uneven.


Correction: A previous version of this article stated the Republican succession of presidents inaccurately.

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Our Sources

Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, September 2016

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey, September 2017

Washington Post, This is what we learned by counting the women’s marches, Feb. 7, 2017

Business Insider, The 9 biggest marches and protests in American history, Jan. 20, 2017

United States Senate, Vice Presidents of the United States (President of the Senate), 1997

CNN, By the Numbers: Vice Presidents, July 5, 2012

Fortune, Why Hillary Clinton Carries Hot Sauce With Her, April 18, 2016

Washington Post, Election 2016: Money Raised as of Dec. 31, Feb. 1, 2017

Bloomberg, Tracking the 2016 Presidential Money Race, Dec. 9, 2016

The Atlantic, Hillary Clinton’s Women Donors Could Change Politics Forever, Jan. 30, 2016

FEC, 2013-2014, 2015-2016 2,619,000 of donations were <$100

CNN, Exit Polls, Nov. 23, 2017

CNN, President: Full Results, Dec. 10, 2013

CNN, Exit Polls, Nov. 18, 2008

CNN, Exit Poll, 2005

Political Science Quarterly, The 2000 Presidential Election: Why Gore Lost, Summer 2001

RealClearPolitics, What White Women Want, Surprisingly the GOP, Nov. 13, 2009

Colorlines, White Power in Election 2000, Mar. 15 2001

CNN, Exit Poll, Nov. 6, 1996

Media Matters, Study Confirms Network Evening Newscasts Have Abandoned Policy Coverage for 2016 Campaign, October 26, 2016

Tyndall Report, Oct. 24, 2016

Salon, The media isn’t for Hillary Clinton: Her emails have been covered more than all policy proposals, Nov. 3, 2016

The Inquirer, That Hillary 'bombshell' was just the implosion of U.S. democracy, Nov. 1 2016

Census Bureau, Americans Moving at Historically Low Rates, Census Bureau Reports, Nov. 16, 2016

Pew Research Center, Americans are moving at historically low rates, in part because Millennials are staying put, Feb. 13, 2017

Guardian, This may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest, March 28, 2016

Washington Post, This Palm-Beach Post story is peak Russia-Trump media frenzy, March 10, 2017

New York Times, Only in Palm Beach: The $95 Million Tear-Down, Aug. 27, 2016

CNN, Home prices post record 18% drop, Dec. 30, 2008

Wall Street Journal, Russian Billionaire Part of Record Deal for Trump Mansion, June 20, 2008

NCBI, Vitamin effects on the immune system: vitamins A and D take centre stage, July 20, 2010

PolitiFact, In context: Hillary Clinton’s comments about coal jobs, May 10, 2016

PolitiFact, Fact-checking Donald Trump’s address to Congress, Feb. 28, 2017


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