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PolitiFact FL: Fact-checking the Iowa debate between Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, both speaking at the at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, right, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, both speaking at the at the CNN Republican presidential debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

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 race to win the quickly approaching Iowa caucuses ran through a CNN debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in which the front-runner was again absent and only two candidates made the debate cut: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

DeSantis and Haley took the stage Jan. 10 for the fifth Republican presidential debate and fired a frenzy of attacks at each other’s records and positions. In an often testy faceoff, Haley repeatedly touted a new website, DeSantisLies.com, while DeSantis clapped back at Haley over Social Security, education and immigration. (Here’s our story about Haley’s website.)

Former President Donald Trump, who had skipped the previous four Republican debates, skipped this one, too. He instead participated in a Fox News town hall, also in Des Moines. (We fact-checked that, too.)

Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who participated in the previous Republican debate in December in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, did not qualify. Candidates needed at least 10% support in three CNN-approved national or Iowa polls to qualify, including one poll of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced on the day of the debate that he was dropping out of the race.

Immigration

DeSantis: "Nikki Haley also opposed the border wall in 2016."

This is False. When Haley was asked at a 2015 luncheon about Trump’s pitch for a border wall, she said a wall alone wasn’t enough to secure the border. She said agents, technology and investments were also necessary to address illegal immigration.

"Because a wall is not going to do it," Haley said Sept. 2, 2015. "You’ve got to have commitment of ground troops, equipment, money, all of that to bring it together. Then you’re being serious about tackling illegal immigration."

As a presidential candidate, Haley has said she wants to finish building a border wall.

School disruption and housing migrants in New York City 

During a back-and-forth on immigration, DeSantis mentioned a Brooklyn, New York, school.

"Think about what's happening to our country. Just this week, we saw the news that a school in Brooklyn, New York, had the kids stay home," DeSantis said. "They were not able to go to school, (were) told, ‘You can’t go get an in-person education.’ Why? Because the city's commandeering the school to house illegal aliens in it."

DeSantis’ characterization omits key details. He is referring to a single-day displacement because of severe weather. No migrants remained in the high school after Jan. 10.

Classes at the high school are scheduled to resume in person Jan. 11.

Migrants entering the U.S. during Biden administration 

DeSantis attacked President Joe Biden’s immigration record.

"Biden’s let in 8 million people just in four years. They all have to go back," DeSantis said Jan. 10. We rated it Mostly False.

This talking point relies on a misleading read of immigration data. Immigrant encounters are different from admissions. PolitiFact fact-checked a similar claim in September and also rated it Mostly False.

Nationwide data up to November 2023 shows that immigration officials have encountered migrants 8.1 million times under Biden (who has been in office almost three years).

But that doesn’t mean 8.1 million people are now living in the United States. Immigration data represents events, not people. If one person tries to enter the country three different times and is stopped each time by border officials, for example, that equals three encounters, even if it’s the same person encountered.

The number of people let into the country is about one-quarter of what DeSantis said.

DeSantis: "Donald Trump deported fewer people than Barack Obama did when he was president."

This is True.

The government measures deportations in different ways, and former President Barack Obama surpassed former President Donald Trump’s numbers in each one.

Under Trump, from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2020, the Department of Homeland Security recorded 2 million removals, returns and expulsions. (Fiscal year 2017 included about four months of the Obama administration.)

During Obama’s first term, fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2012, there were 3.2 million removals and returns. Fiscal year 2009 included about four months of the second George W. Bush administration. During Obama’s second term, covering fiscal years 2013 through 2016, there were 2.1 million removals and returns. There were no expulsions under Obama because expulsions occurred only under a public health policy installed in March 2020, years after Obama left office.

DeSantis: Haley brought in "Syrian refugees and she got criticized for that." 

DeSantis appears to be referring to Haley’s initial 2015 support to allow vetted Syrian refugees, while omitting that months later she spoke against them coming to her state.

As South Carolina governor, Haley wrote an April 2015 letter backing faith groups’ efforts to bring Syrian refugees to South Carolina. "These people are in danger of losing their lives in their home countries for things such as aiding U.S. troops as translators or guides, membership of a religious minority, or regional war or genocide," Haley wrote, according to The State, a Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper.

After a November 2015 terrorist attack in France in which some of the accused were foreign fighters returning from Syria, several South Carolina lawmakers asked Haley to reconsider her position.

Haley then askedSecretary of State John Kerry not to resettle Syrian refugees in South Carolina "until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations."

State Department data shows that for the federal fiscal year ended in September 2016, South Carolina accepted 38 Syrian refugees. In the federal fiscal year ending in September 2017, 11 Syrians arrived in South Carolina. Haley’s tenure as governor ended in January 2017.

DeSantis is partially correct. Haley has said "the law should stay out of it," but has also strongly opposed gender-affirming care for minors.

In a June CBS interview, Haley said when determining what care should be available for transgender youth, the "law should stay out of it and I think parents should handle it." She followed up by saying, "When that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change they can do that."

Haley’s campaign pointed to a May ABC News appearance during which she said that a minor shouldn’t be allowed to have a "gender-changing procedure" and opposed "taxpayer dollars" funding one.

In the CNN debate, Haley reiterated, "We shouldn’t have any gender transitions before the age of 18."

Florida

Florida’s property insurance, inflation rate 

Haley tried to highlight weaknesses in Florida’s economic performance.

DeSantis often lists the ways Florida is the nation’s top-ranked state, from gross domestic product to education to entrepreneurship. (We fact-checked his list.)

"But if he's gonna talk about his economy, I think what we should say is, ‘Why does Florida have the highest property insurance in the country?’" Haley said. "Why is it that (Florida) is named the American hotspot for inflation? Why is it that his state is now known to have the highest cost-of-living increases?"

The property insurance claim rates True, although recent legislation aims to drive down rates. We wanted to look at the other economic statistics that cast Florida in a less-sunny light.

The federal government doesn’t collect official data on inflation rates by state. But it does collect inflation statistics for a range of metropolitan areas, and the two Florida metro areas tracked in this way currently have inflation rates well above the national average.

Haley: "As a matter of fact, (DeSantis) gave (Disney) the largest corporate subsidies in Florida history."

As Haley laid on her attack, DeSantis said "that’s false." The truth is in between.

In 2020, Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, overseen by DeSantis, approved The Walt Disney Co. for a state tax credit program that would have allowed Disney to earn up to $570 million in tax credits over 20 years.

But Disney pulled the plug on its plan to build a regional headquarters in Orlando amid its feud with DeSantis.

Disney qualified for a capital investment tax credit for the project, which would have cost around $1 billion to build, The New York Times reported. Disney would have moved at least 2,000 employees — with salaries averaging $120,000 — from California.

Had this plan proceeded, this corporate tax incentive would have been the largest on record approved by Florida for a single project, based on data from research center Good Jobs First, which tracks government tax credits and subsidies for corporations.

In May 2023, Disney told employees that the project was canceled. A theme park official cited "changing business conditions" in a memo, The New York Times reported.

Social Security

DeSantis: "(Haley) said recently that the age of Social Security is way too low."

This is missing context. We rated a similar claim by former President Donald Trump Half True.

During an Aug. 24 Bloomberg Markets interview, Haley said the U.S. retirement age, at which Americans would receive Social Security and Medicare benefits, is "way too low." But she said it should be raised in line with longer life expectancy. And she made clear that she didn’t support changing the age for current beneficiaries or those nearing retirement.

"We don't touch anyone's retirement or anyone who's been promised in, but we go to people like my kids in their twenties, when they're coming into the system, and we say the rules have changed," Haley said in the interview. "We change (the) retirement age to reflect life expectancy. Instead of cost-of-living increases, we do it based on inflation. We limit the benefits on the wealthy and we expand Medicare advantage plans." (Medicare Advantage is a type of Medicare health plan offered by approved private companies.)

U.S. life expectancy dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has shown signs of rebounding, increasing from 76.4 years in 2021 to 77.5 in 2022, federal data shows.

Life expectancy and Social Security 

DeSantis and Haley sparred over whether to raise the Social Security retirement age.

Haley said life expectancy is longer today, so the age to start collecting Social Security and Medicare benefits should be older than the current 65 years old. She said people in or near retirement should be protected from a retirement age increase. But people in their 20s should be told that "we're going to change the retirement age to reflect life expectancy."

DeSantis said he wouldn’t raise the age, citing an erosion in life expectancy over the past few years.

"The problem now in the last five years is life expectancy is going down," DeSantis said. "So, I don't see how you can raise the retirement age when our life expectancy is collapsing in this country."

PolitiFact readers asked us whether U.S. life expectancy is decreasing. We found that both candidates can point to data that supports their position.

Electric vehicles 

Haley: "Electric vehicles are heavy. Our roads and bridges wouldn't be able to handle that … because they're heavy in weight."

Haley has said this before, and we found that her concerns are exaggerated

Electric vehicles generally weigh more than gasoline-powered cars. However, EVs don’t cause the lion’s share of wear and tear on roads, infrastructure experts say. Much of that damage is caused by heavier vehicles such as tractor-trailers.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Kevin Heaslip, director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research, told PolitiFact in 2023 that EVs often weigh 30% more than gasoline-powered vehicles. The main reason is the weight of their batteries, which can add hundreds of pounds or more.

Heavy trucks cause the vast majority of damage on U.S. roadways. A semitruck with eight axles weighing 80,000 pounds does 2,500 times more road damage than a two-axled, 4,000-pound sedan, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Military service 

DeSantis: "I'm the only one running for president that served in the armed forces. I deployed to Iraq back in 2007, 2008."

This is correct. DeSantis earned his law degree from Harvard University and served in the U.S. Navy as a lawyer, also known as a judge advocate general. His military records show he enlisted in 2004 during his second year at Harvard and served from 2005 to 2010.He was stationed in Iraq with SEAL Team 1 from 2007 to 2008 as a senior legal adviser to Navy Capt. Dane Thorleifson, the commander of the Special Operations Task Force-West in Fallujah.

Senior Correspondents Louis Jacobson and Amy Sherman, Deputy Editor Miriam Valverde and Staff Writers Grace Abels, Samantha Putterman, Loreben Tuquero and Maria Ramirez Uribe contributed to this story.