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Fact-checking the first Republican primary debate

Highlights from the first Republican presidential debate
Highlights from the first Republican presidential debate (Fox News).

Fox News aired the first GOP debate of the 2024 election cycle from Milwaukee on Wednesday night, featuring eight candidates. Not every candidate uttered facts that are easily fact-checked, but following is a list of 10 suspicious claims. As is our practice, we do not award Pinocchios when we do a roundup of facts in debates. These claims are examined in the order in which they were uttered.


"We all need to understand Joe Biden's Bidenomics has led to the loss of $10,000 of spending power for the average family."

- Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.)

This seems wildly overstated. In April we had checked a claim by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that families have lost the equivalent of $7,400 worth of income. We tracked down the source of that statistic - E.J. Antoni, a research fellow in regional economics with the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis. As of last week, he'd revised his estimate down to $6,800.

But, more to the point, economists we contacted were dubious about the math, which relied on a change in purchasing power and a change in borrowing power. The change in borrowing power relied on mortgage rates - and not every family is looking for a new home. As for Antoni's reliance on average weekly wages, this measure does not follow the same workers across time, and consequently the economists said it was an imperfect basis for families' income changing over time.

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Several economists pointed to another metric - real disposable personal income per capita - as a better gauge. That figure is produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis at the Commerce Department.

Per capita income, after inflation, was $46,790 in December 2020 and $46,795 in June 2023 - an increase of $5. That's basically flat - but a far cry from a $10,000 decline.

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"A 15-week ban is an idea whose time has come - it's supported by 70 percent of the American people."

- Former vice president Mike Pence

Recent polling does not back up Pence's claim of such support for banning all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, when people are directly asked about it, though in general, polls have shown majority opposition to second-trimester abortions.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year found that 36 percent supported and 57 percent opposed a law that would make abortions legal only in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.

Last month, a Marquette Law School poll found that 47 percent of those surveyed favored a ban after 15 weeks, compared with 53 percent who said they would oppose it.

Also last month, an AP-NORC poll found that about half of Americans say abortions should be permitted at the 15-week mark.

A Fox News poll in April found that 54 percent supported such a ban, while 42 percent opposed it. But that is still well short of 70 percent.


"We're better than what the Democrats are selling. We are not going to allow abortion all the way up till birth, and we will hold them accountable for their extremism."

- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

This is a common Republican talking point - that Democrats support nationwide abortion-on-demand up until the moment of birth. The implication is that late-term abortions are common - and that they are routinely accepted by Democrats.

The reality, according to federal and state data, is that abortions past the point of viability are extremely rare. When they do happen, they often involve painful, emotional and even moral decisions.

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About two-thirds of abortions occur at eight weeks of pregnancy or earlier, and nearly 90 percent take place in the first 12 weeks, or within most definitions of the first trimester, according to estimates by the Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights. About 5.5 percent of abortions take place after 15 weeks, with just 1.3 percent at 21 weeks or longer.

Increasingly, there is a period when premature births and late abortions begin to overlap. The CDC recorded almost 22,000 births between 20 and 27 weeks. Babies born before 25 weeks are considered extremely preterm, with vital organs such as heart, lungs and brain very immature. But the survival rate has climbed to 30 percent for 22-week babies and 55 percent for 23-week babies, according to a 2022 study.

Some states record whether a fetus was born alive during an abortion and whether efforts were made to save it. Seven were born alive in Florida in 2022, nine in Arizona in 2020, one in Texas in 2021 and five in Minnesota in 2021. A CDC study of 143 cases between 2003 and 2014 found that most died within hours, with only 4.2 percent surviving for more than 24 hours.


"Crime is at a 50-year low in Florida."

- DeSantis

This statement is based on incomplete data, according to the Marshall Project, an online journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice issues.

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"About half of the agencies that police more than 40% of the state's population are missing from figures the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) used for a statewide estimation," the news organization said. Participation in national data collection is even lower, with less than eight percent of Florida's police departments included in an FBI federal database. Many of the largest, such as the Miami Police Department, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and the St. Petersburg Police Department, are missing from the national numbers.

It is impossible, then, to compare Florida's crime rate with that of other states. And in any case, the crime rate in Florida has been steadily declining for three decades.


"We have a crime wave in this country."

- Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy

This is a bit out of date. Crime spiked during the pandemic, and though rates are still higher than before the pandemic, homicides are dropping in dozens of major cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Examining homicides in 30 cities that make homicide data readily available, an analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice found that the number of killings in the first half of 2023 fell by 9.4 percent compared with the first half of 2022.

Moreover, gun assaults (-5.6 percent), robberies (-3.6 percent), nonresidential burglaries (-5 percent), larcenies (-4.1 percent), residential burglaries (-3.8 percent) and aggravated assaults (-2.5 percent) fell in the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year. However, car thefts continued to increase.

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FBI data shows that the nationwide violent crime rate peaked in 1991 with 758.2 crimes per 100,000 people; in 2020, the rate was 398.5. The nationwide homicide rate reached a high in 1991, at 9.8 per 100,000 population. By 2019, it had dropped to 5.1.


"Not only weaponization in the Department of Justice against political opponents, but also look at the parents who show up at school board meetings are called domestic terrorists."

- Scott

This is a frequent GOP talking point but it's false. Attorney General Merrick Garland has never equated parents to terrorists, and in fact he told Congress he "can't imagine" a circumstance under which that would happen.

This all started with a Sept. 29, 2021, letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) that asked President Biden for federal resources to help monitor "threats of violence and acts of intimidation" against public school board members and other school officials. Five days later, Garland issued a memo addressed to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and federal prosecutors. He called for action within 30 days to "facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats" against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.

Garland's memo never mentioned domestic terrorism, but the NSBA letter that prompted it included a line that asserted "these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes." There was enough blowback to that language that on Oct. 22, the NSBA apologized for the letter, saying "there was no justification for some of the language included." A new executive director for the association was installed, the letter was deleted from the NSBA website, and the association announced in February that it had launched an independent review of how the letter was created.

Nevertheless, the Justice Department never equated parents to domestic terrorists.

When questioned by Republicans in congressional hearings, Garland and other top Justice officials have insisted that they do not think concerned parents are terrorists. "I can't imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children, nor can I imagine a circumstance where they would be labeled as domestic terrorism," Garland told the House Judiciary Committee.


"The Biden administration wanted to put 87,000 people in the IRS instead of giving the money we need to our own Border Patrol."

- North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum

"Let's fire the 87,000 IRS agents and hire or double the number of Border Patrol agents."

- Scott

This 87,000 figure is a common GOP talking point but it is wildly exaggerated to speak of "agents" as Scott did. When Congress passed a bill to provide the IRS with an additional $80 billion in funding over 10 years, that money was to be used in part to hire 86,852 full-time employees in the next decade. But many of those employees would not be enforcement "agents" but people hired to improve information technology and customer service. Treasury officials say that because of attrition, after 10 years of increasing spending, the size of the agency will have grown only 25 to 30 percent when the hiring burst is completed.

The administration's strategic plan for the IRS, released in April, estimated that an additional 1,543 full-time employees would be hired for enforcement in 2023, or about 15 percent of newly hired staff. That would grow to 7,239 in 2024, or 37 percent of new staff.

Biden administration officials have pledged that enforcement efforts to collect unpaid taxes will concentrate on those earning more than $400,000.


"We secured the southern border and reduced illegal immigration by 90 percent."

- Pence

Ninety percent is a cherry-picked number, apparently comparing May 2019, the highest month for border apprehensions during the Trump administration, with April 2020, when apprehensions plunged because of lockdowns at the start of the covid pandemic. Another complicating factor is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection changed the way it counted apprehensions during the pandemic, making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult because the numbers were inflated by people who were expelled for health policy reasons, not just enforcement actions. But generally, annual apprehensions increased during the Trump administration.


"We eliminated critical race theory from our K through 12 schools."

- DeSantis

Critical race theory refers to an academic framework centered on the idea that racism is systemic, and not just demonstrated by individual people with prejudices. It is generally taught in higher education, such as law or graduate school, not at lower grade levels. So this is a bit of an empty boast. Educators, school officials and several Florida public school districts told PolitiFact that critical race theory wasn't taught in Florida's elementary, middle or high schools.

PolitiFact rated DeSantis's claim as "mostly false," saying that at most the state under DeSantis "rejected prospective teaching materials in recent years that it claimed was related to CRT. But questions remain about its rationale in several cases."


"I did not grow up in money."

- Ramaswamy

Earlier in the debate, Ramaswamy had said, "My parents came to this country with no money 40 years ago." But then he went further later in the evening with the line "I did not grow up in money." His parents did well enough, however, that in his book "Nation of Victims," Ramaswamy wrote that by the time he was in sixth grade, he had a "comfortably middle-class family with two incomes." His father worked for General Electric, which had a cost-cutting boss at the time, and he wrote that the fear of a layoff was ever present, so his father "tried to make himself indispensable" by becoming a patent attorney for the firm.

By the time he was 18, Vivek had a stock portfolio significant enough that he earned $453 in dividends in 2002, according to his tax return. By his sophomore year in college, when he made about $3,500 in wage income, he earned $11,712 from dividends alone.