Fact-check: What Republican candidates claimed in the second presidential primary debate
WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.
The second Republican debate had a raucous tone, with the seven candidates frequently talking over one another and the moderators calling for order. But themes quickly emerged, including the auto workers’ strike, crime, government spending, inflation and border security.
Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the polls, skipped the debate held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
“Tonight’s GOP debate was as boring and inconsequential as the first debate, and nothing that was said will change the dynamics of the primary contest being dominated by President Trump," said Trump campaign Senior Advisor Chris LaCivita in a statement following the debate.
Seven candidates participated in Thursday night's debate: North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Vice President Mike Pence, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
The candidates lobbed accusations about allegiances with foreign governments and increasing spending during the other’s tenures. The role of foreign governments, including China, Mexico and Ukraine, was front and center in the discussion.
Tim Scott: The southwest U.S. border under President Joe Biden is "unsafe, wide-open and insecure, leading to the deaths of 70,000 Americans in the last 12 months because of fentanyl."
Scott’s claim is misleading. Deaths from fentanyl jumped 23% in Biden’s first year in office to more than 70,000. But they have been increasing since 2014 and also rose during Trump’s administration.
Although immigration encounters at the southern U.S. border have spiked under Biden’s watch, experts say most of the fentanyl coming into the U.S. from Mexico is coming through legal ports of entry. The vast majority of people sentenced for fentanyl trafficking are U.S. citizens, data shows.
Chris Christie: Donald Trump "built 52 miles of wall."
The Trump administration built 52 miles of new primary border barriers — the first impediment people encounter if they’re trying to cross the southern border with Mexico, that can block access for pedestrians or vehicles — where there were none before.
The administration built 458 total miles of primary and secondary border barriers, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows. The majority were replacements of smaller, dilapidated barriers.
The U.S.-Mexico border stretches for 2,000 miles across four states and a variety of terrain.
Mike Pence: "Despite what's said here today, we reduced illegal immigration and asylum abuse by 90%."
This is False.
Pence has used this 90% drop statistic many times, but has never explained its origin.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, immigration drastically dropped worldwide as governments enacted policies limiting people’s movement. In the U.S., Trump instituted Title 42, a public health policy that authorized the Border Patrol to immediately return most immigrants back to Mexico. The increased use of this policy decreased the use of other programs, including "Remain in Mexico."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection during the pandemic also adopted a new way of reporting migrant encounters. Before the pandemic, it reported only enforcement actions under immigration law; its data during the pandemic includes actions taken under both immigration law and the public health policy. Therefore, 2020 data isn’t entirely comparable with pre-pandemic data.
Accounting for challenges in data comparisons, our review found a 300% increase in illegal immigration from Trump’s first full month in office, February 2017, to his last full month, December 2020.
One way to get close to Pence’s alleged 90% decrease in illegal immigration is by comparing data from May 2019, the month during the administration that had the highest apprehensions, with data from April 2020, the month with the lowest enforcement actions in calendar year 2020.
But that’s a severely cherry-picked period.
THE ECONOMY AND GOVERNMENT SPENDING
Chris Christie: Inflation is "caused by government spending."
Government spending certainly affects inflation. But it’s not the only factor.
The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act added about $1.9 trillion to the economy, and economists across the political spectrum say it spurred inflation. They differ on how much the law affected inflation, with estimates ranging from two to four additional points out of the current inflation rate of about 8.5%.
However, none of the experts PolitiFact talked to for a previous fact-check, liberal or conservative, said Biden’s actions were responsible for all of the inflation. Past government spending, COVID-19’s disruptions to labor markets, energy prices and supply chains also played significant roles. Most recently, the war in Ukraine has made a challenging situation worse.
Mike Pence: "Ron (DeSantis), you talk a really good game about cutting spending, but you've increased spending in Florida by 30%."
We rated a similar claim Half True.
In 2018, the year before DeSantis became governor, Florida’s budget was about $88.7 billion. In 2023, DeSantis signed a $116.5 billion budget. That’s a 31% increase.
But Pence’s remark omits the other side of the ledger.
From 2018 to 2023, Florida tax revenue rose by about the same percentage as the state’s population grew. Pandemic federal aid boosted Florida’s budget, as it did in other states. And the Florida Legislature is required to pass a balanced budget for DeSantis to sign.
Nikki Haley: "Congress has only delivered a budget on time four times in 40 years."
This is correct.
"In the nearly five decades that the current system for budgeting and spending tax dollars has been in place, Congress has passed all its required appropriations measures on time only four times," the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research group, wrote earlier this year.
Those were in fiscal years 1977, 1989, 1995 and 1997.
Mike Pence: "We brought 12,000 factories back to America during our administration."
This is accurate but needs context.
When then-President Donald Trump cited this statistic in his 2020 State of the Union address, CNN’s fact-checking unit called it "correct," citing two data sets: the Census Bureau's Statistics of U.S. Businesses data series and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
But the term "factories" includes everything from large to small establishments, and the pattern for total manufacturing employment was not as strong during the Trump-Pence administration as the pattern for manufacturing establishments.
From the start of Trump’s term to the eve of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. manufacturing employment rose by 419,000. By comparison, since Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, manufacturing employment has risen by 801,000, almost twice as fast in a shorter period.
Mike Pence: "Wages are not keeping up with inflation."
It depends on the time frame measured. Pence is right if you look at the start of Biden’s term to today. A standard measure of worker pay compared with inflation — median usual weekly inflation-adjusted earnings for full-time wage and salary workers age 16 years and older — shows that weekly wages were $373 in the first quarter of 2021, when Biden took office, and were $365 in the second quarter of 2023. That’s a 2% decline after accounting for inflation.
However, for each of the past four quarters — a yearlong period in which inflation has eased — wages have been rising faster than inflation. From the second quarter of 2022 to the second quarter of 2023, weekly wages rose from $359 to $365 after inflation.
Also, inflation-adjusted wages today are just shy of where they were before the coronavirus pandemic, when they were $367 a week.
Ron DeSantis: "We have a 50-year-low in the crime rate" in Florida.
The data for this claim is incomplete. Crime figures are low in Florida, but DeSantis’ figure comes from a state database containing information from law enforcement agencies that represent only about 57% of the state’s population, a Sept. 20 NBC News report found.
The patchy data is related to Florida’s transition to incident-based crime reporting, the new federal standard, rather than the summary-based reports it has used since the 1970s. With summary reporting, if one incident resulted in multiple crimes, only the most serious would be reported. In 2021, the federal government stopped accepting this type of data and now requires states to report each crime.
The FBI’s crime reporting database doesn’t support DeSantis’ figure either. Only 48 out of 757 Florida law enforcement agencies participated in the FBI’s data collection in 2021. The numbers appear to be similar for 2022, according to an analysis by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization.
Fact-checking DeSantis’ claim that Florida proposal to teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery was a "hoax that was perpetrated by Kamala Harris."
DeSantis is dodging the facts.
The Florida Board of Education set new social studies standards for middle schoolers July 19.
In a section about the duties and trades performed by enslaved people, the state adopted a clarification that said "instruction includes how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit."
Experts on Black history said that such language is factually misleading and offensive.
"Most enslaved people had no special skills at all that benefited them following their enslavement," said Marvin Dunn, a psychology professor emeritus at Florida International University, has authored several books on the history of African Americans. "For almost all their skill was picking cotton. An enslaved man who was made to be a blacksmith might have been a king had he not been captured and taken from his country. Is he supposed to be grateful? Enslavement prevented people from becoming who and what they might have been and that was slavery's greatest injury to humankind."
Vivek Ramaswamy: "Transgenderism, especially in kids, is a mental health disorder."
Medical experts disagree. Being transgender and having gender dysphoria — distress that some people may experience when their sex assigned at birth does not align with their gender identity — is not considered a mental health disorder. Historically, the diagnosis has carried the term "disorder," but experts no longer view it as a pathology and are working to destigmatize the diagnosis.
Previous terms such as "gender identity disorder" and "transexualism" have evolved into "gender incongruence," a condition the World Health Organization now considers a condition related to sexual health — not mental health. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, contains a diagnosis for "gender dysphoria," but experts say it remains partly to let insurance companies cover gender-affirming care and let incarcerated people access care.
Mike Pence: Linn-Mar Community Schools in Iowa had a policy where "you could get a gender transition plan without notifying your parents."
This needs more context. The Iowa school district in 2022 adopted a policy that allowed students to request a "gender support plan." According to Axios, this plan would outline a student’s preferred name and pronouns as well as which locker rooms or bathroom the student would use, which is a social, rather than a medical, transition.
The student could choose whether the parents were informed, but the plan was not related to medical transition, which, for minors, requires the consent of parental guardians. Schools often don’t inform parents when students signal they are socially transitioning, The Washington Post reported.
Grace Abels, Madison Czopek, Marta Campabadal Graus, Louis Jacobson, Samantha Putterman, Aaron Sharockman and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.