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The greatest fact-checking hits of Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event Feb. 27, 2020, in Spartanburg, S.C. (AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event Feb. 27, 2020, in Spartanburg, S.C. (AP)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign event Feb. 27, 2020, in Spartanburg, S.C. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg April 8, 2020

If Your Time is short

• Bernie Sanders announced April 8 he saw no path to victory over former Joe Biden in the Democratic presidential primary.

• Sanders was one of the most fact-checked candidates of the crowded primary field.

• Most of his claims were about his defining issue, Medicare for All.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders threw in the towel on his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Between a series of defeats that began on Super Tuesday and the coronavirus shutdown, the most liberal candidate in the Democratic primary never regained his momentum. Speaking from his home in Burlington, Vt., he told his supporters that despite some gains, he saw no path to victory.

"While we are winning the ideological battle, and while we are winning the support of young people and working people throughout the country, I have concluded that this battle for the Democratic nomination will not be successful," Sanders said April 8.

We at PolitiFact have been vetting his claims for nearly 11 years. Overall, his track record on the Truth-o-Meter shows that more often than not, his statements have the ring of accuracy. We’ve checked him 171 times, and while that includes 18 False ratings, there is not one Pants on Fire, and his most common rating is Mostly True.

During the run-up to the primary and through it, we looked at 50 of Sanders’ statements. We have no doubt that he will continue to make assertions, and that we will continue to check them for accuracy. But at this turning point, we wanted to roll back his highlights from the 2020 Democratic  presidential primary.

Health care

Health care was Sanders’ defining issue. He wrote "the damn bill" (his words in one debate) that would create a Medicare for All, single-payer health insurance program. Sometimes Sanders was on target with his claims, but he had a tendency to push the limits and stray from the realm of accuracy.

"We end the $100 billion a year that the health care industry makes." 

Sanders said this in his last debate in January. It’s based on the 2018 net revenues — as disclosed by the companies — for 10 pharmaceutical companies and 10 companies that work in health insurance. The math holds up. If anything, it’s an underestimate because it doesn’t include one of the largest sources of health care profits: hospitals, health systems and physicians. We rated this True.

"One out of five Americans cannot afford the cost of prescription drugs."

Sanders said this frequently, and survey data backs it up. To a point. Affordability is hard to measure. In one key poll, only about 10% said it was very difficult to pay for their medications. But affordability is a significant factor driving the prescription drug debate, and this came in at Mostly True.

"30,000 Americans a year die waiting for health care because of the cost."

This is based on some sketchy assumptions. It was extrapolated from a limited study in Oregon and health policy researchers said that the statistical significance was doubtful. Plus, it would be hard to apply one state’s results to the entire country. People do die due to lack of insurance coverage, but how many is uncertain. The fuzzy math led to a Half True ruling.

With Medicare for All, "study after study has shown that ... the average middle-class families will save $3,000 each and every year on their health care bills." 

Assessing the net cost of Medicare for All bedeviled Sanders throughout his campaign. It was clear that the sweeping program would cost tens of trillions of dollars, and it was also clear that people and employers would no longer need to pay insurance premiums, deductibles or other costs. But tax hikes would be inevitable, and the question was how would most people come out in the end. Sanders always took an optimistic view, but when he said this, the studies he relied on were too old or too limited to back him up. We rated this Mostly False.

Inequality, tax breaks and trade

Sanders often described the American economy as "rigged" against poor and working class families. Sanders’ talking points ranged from clearly correct to largely wrong.

"The wealthiest three families now own more wealth than the bottom half of the country." 

Measuring wealth is challenging, but when we looked at this in July 2019, the combined net worth of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and investor Warren Buffet was $248.5 billion, exceeding the total wealth of $245 billion of the bottom half of Americans. This statement rated True.

"Trade agreements like NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China, which forced American workers to compete against people making pennies an hour, has resulted in the loss of 160,000 jobs here in Michigan."

The impact of China on manufacturing jobs is more certain and widespread than that of NAFTA, but most research shows that both undermined decent paying work in midwestern states such as Michigan. We rated this Mostly True.

Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 "would give more than 40 million low-wage workers a raise, more than 25 percent of the U.S. workforce." 

In his announcement that he was ending his presidential bid, Sanders said that his push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour had won wider acceptance over time. Some states and cities have taken that path. But when Sanders said 40 million people would see a raise if the entire country followed suit, he glossed over many reasonable studies that said in some job markets, a hike in the minimum wage could raise employers’ costs and likely cause a loss of low-skilled jobs. Ignoring that is a major assumption, and we rated this Half True.

Says Congress gave Wall Street "trillions of dollars of zero interest loans."

The government bailout of the nation's biggest banks after the 2008 recession  never sat well with Sanders. The Federal Reserve moved aggressively to pump trillions of dollars into the banking system. But Sanders’ assertion falls short on a few fronts. Much of the money was made up of short-term loans that rolled over again and again. And about two-thirds of the money in the largest program went to banks beyond Wall Street. Plus, the banks paid some interest on many of the loans. In sum, we rated this Mostly False.

Criminal justice

"We have more people in jail than any other country. We have more people in jail than China."

This is accurate, according to World Prison Brief, a project of the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research and the University of London’s Birkbeck College. The United States had 2.12 million imprisoned people, compared to 1.65 million for China, which ranked second. On a per capita basis, the United States also ranked first in the world, ahead of El Salvador and Turkmenistan; China ranked 113rd on a per capita basis.

"We have something like one out of four young black men in this country end up in the criminal justice system. They may end up in jail, they may end up on parole, they may end up on probation." 

We found that Sanders’ specific claim is not directly supported by federal crime statistics, however you read them. That said, it might be a reasonable estimate based on incarceration trends and older research on crime rates among black men. There’s ample evidence of disparities in the criminal justice system. Quantifying it the way Sanders did is hamstrung by the limited data. We rated this Half True

Campaign curve balls

Campaigns go through odd twists as they near the end, and Sanders’ was no exception. While he congratulated former vice president Joe Biden for winning the primary and called him a "decent man," he wasn’t so kind in the final weeks.

Says Joe Biden "has advocated cutting Social Security for 40 years"

A Sanders television ad cast Biden as soft on protecting Social Security, a pillar of the Democratic Party. Over his decades in the Senate, Biden generally pushed to protect Social Security, but he also supported ideas that would reduce Social Security benefits over time. Sanders’ ad rated Mostly False.

"When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program."

As a democratic socialist, Sanders criticized the lack of freedoms in the Communinist island nation, but he also praised its practical achievements. In 1959, 23.6% of the Cuban population couldn’t read or write. By 1961, about a quarter of million teachers reached over 700,000 people, who then passed a basic literacy test, driving the rate down to 3.9%.

The data backed up Sanders’ point, but it glossed over that Castro took control after a long civil war. But on the basic facts, we rated this Mostly True.

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The greatest fact-checking hits of Bernie Sanders' 2020 campaign