FactChecking the Haley-DeSantis GOP Debate

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Summary

There were several disputes between Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in the fifth Republican primary debate, the first of the 2024 election cycle to include only two candidates. We refereed some of those arguments and set the facts straight on other claims:

  • DeSantis said that in South Carolina, Haley “tried to raise the gas tax” and “proposed a tax on groceries.” Haley said she’d accept an increase in the gas tax only if the state’s income tax was reduced by a greater margin. She also once said she’d support resurrecting the grocery tax if the overall sales tax was reduced and corporate income taxes eliminated.
  • DeSantis misleadingly claimed that President Joe Biden “let in 8 million people” across the southern border, saying, “They all have to go back.” Many of them have already gone back.
  • Haley touted a Wall Street Journal poll that showed her beating Biden by 17 points in a general election between the two candidates, but she left the false impression that “every one” of such polls had her up by that much.
  • The candidates tangled over Syrian refugees who came to South Carolina when Haley was governor. DeSantis claimed that Haley “did bring Syrian refugees” to South Carolina, but Haley opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees in her state.
  • Each candidate failed to adequately explain the other’s position on Social Security and the retirement age. DeSantis also incorrectly said life expectancy was “collapsing.” Life expectancy at birth actually rose between 2021 and 2022, after drops driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On transgender issues, DeSantis accused Haley of killing a 2016 bathroom bill when she was governor and changing her position on what medical care should be legally available to minors, but he overstated both claims.
  • DeSantis said Haley “opposed the border wall in 2016” and “ridiculed” Trump for proposing it. But in calling for a more comprehensive approach, Haley said then that “just” building a wall was not going to solve illegal immigration.
  • DeSantis disagreed that he had issued a statement similar to Haley’s in response to the killing of George Floyd. We’ll let readers decide.

The Jan. 10 debate in Des Moines, Iowa, was hosted by CNN. During the first hour, former President Donald Trump was participating in a town hall, also in Des Moines, that aired on Fox News. We fact-checked Trump in a separate story.

Analysis

Tax Disputes

Haley objected when DeSantis said that she “tried to raise the gas tax” in South Carolina.

“What we said is, if you want to raise the gas tax, you have to reduce the income tax by five times that amount,” Haley shot back. She’s right.

Haley opposed a stand-alone tax increase on gasoline, but did propose an infrastructure plan that would have raised the gas tax only if state legislators also voted to cut income taxes for residents.

In a 2015 article, South Carolina’s Post and Courier reported that Haley’s plan “aims to raise the tax on gasoline by 10 cents a gallon over three years while reducing the state income tax from 7 percent to 5 percent over 10 years.” The article noted that the proposal had the support of Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, an organization that opposes higher taxes.

Ultimately, no such plan was approved while Haley was governor.

Haley also pushed back when DeSantis claimed that she “proposed a tax on groceries” for South Carolinians.

“We don’t have a grocery tax in South Carolina,” she said.

The state’s sales and use tax rate on unprepared food items was eliminated in 2007, as Haley indicated. But DeSantis appears to be referring to reporting that Haley later considered implementing a 2.5% grocery tax in exchange for cutting sales taxes overall, as well as eliminating income taxes on corporations.

The Free Times reported that Haley, then a gubernatorial candidate, indicated “she would probably favor a reinstated tax on groceries as part of broader tax reform that would simultaneously lower the overall sales tax rate and wipe out the corporate income tax in South Carolina.”

DeSantis Misleads on Illegal Immigration

In speaking about illegal immigration, DeSantis claimed that Biden “let in 8 million people just in four years. They all have to go back.” That’s misleading. Many of them have already gone back.

Since Biden took office in January 2021, the U.S. Border Patrol had more than 6 million encounters with people trying to cross the southwest border illegally, through November, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. In addition, the Republican-controlled House Homeland Security Committee released a report in October that estimated that under Biden there have been 1.7 million “gotaways” — which are people who cross the border illegally without being apprehended.

Combined, the two figures are close to the 8 million number cited by DeSantis.

But, as we have written before, the number of border encounters includes those immediately expelled under Title 42, a public health law the Trump administration began invoking at the southwest border in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The policy did not end until May 11, 2023. The CBP data show that from January 2021 through May 2023, there had been about 2.5 million people who were immediately expelled under Title 42.

Also, as we have written, the CBP data represent the number of encounters, not people, and there are individuals who have been apprehended multiple times trying to cross the border illegally. The most recent recidivism rate available was 27% in fiscal year 2021, which is through Sept. 30, 2021.

In an article earlier this month, the Washington Post wrote that the actual number of migrants apprehended at the southern border and released into the United States to await immigration court proceedings under Biden is about 2.3 million. That figure is based on a Department of Homeland Security report.

“The DHS data released Friday show more than 4 million border-crossers have been expelled to Mexico, returned to home countries or otherwise removed from the United States over the past three years,” the Post reported.

Haley-Biden Polls

In her closing remarks, Haley left the false impression that in “every one” of the hypothetical head-to-head general election polls, she defeats Biden “by 17 points.” That margin is from a Wall Street Journal poll, but other polls don’t put her ahead of Biden by that much. And some show Biden slightly ahead of Haley.

In an average of recent polls, she does better against Biden than either DeSantis or Trump, but the margins for all are small.

“We can’t go through another nail-biter of an election,” Haley said. “And if you look at the polls right now, going against Joe Biden. In every one of those head-to-head polls, Ron doesn’t beat Joe Biden. Trump is head-to-head. On a good day he might be up by 2 points. I defeat Biden by 17 points.”

The Wall Street Journal poll, conducted Nov. 29 to Dec. 4 among 1,500 registered voters, showed Haley beating Biden by 17 points, when voters were asked which of those two politicians they would vote for if the 2024 general election were held that day. That spread includes those who said they would “definitely” and “probably” vote for either Haley or Biden. In the hypothetical matchup between DeSantis and Biden, the candidates were tied. Trump was ahead of Biden by 4 points.

RealClear Polling’s average of recent head-to-head polls shows Haley leading Biden by 3.3 percentage points, while the average for DeSantis has him trailing Biden by 0.3 percentage points. Trump is up by an average of 1.2 points. Most polls have a margin of error of 2% to 3%.

Besides that sizable 17-point spread in the Wall Street Journal poll, Haley bests Biden by 6 points in a Fox News survey and by 10 in a poll by The Messenger/Harris X. Biden is up by 5, however, in an Economist/YouGov survey. RealClear Polling’s list shows DeSantis beating Biden by 2 points at most in recent polls, and one December survey had Trump up by 6.

Syrian Refugees

In an exchange on Syrian refugees, Haley said that as the governor of South Carolina “we fought [President Barack] Obama on Syrian refugees.” DeSantis shot back, “She did bring Syrian refugees, and she got criticized for that” — to which Haley responded, “That is not true.”

Never Back Down, a super PAC that supports DeSantis, previously told us in an email in October that Haley supported Obama’s resettlement of refugees in South Carolina in the spring of 2015 “until she was pressured by members of her own party into reversing her position in November following the Paris terrorist attacks.”

After the Paris terrorist attack in November 2015, Haley sent a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry asking the Obama administration not to send any Syrian refugees to the United States. We can’t say whether GOP pressure prompted the correspondence. In her letter, she cited the Paris attack that killed 130 people and wounded 494 others, and news reports that one of the attackers falsely declared himself to be a Syrian refugee.

“I have concerns with the vetting process of refugees from conflict-zones, specially Syria,” Haley wrote. She went on to say, “Therefore, until I can be assured that all potential refugees from Syria have no ties to terrorist organizations, I am requesting that the State Department not resettle any Syrian refugees in South Carolina.”

More than half of the governors opposed having Syrian refugees resettled in their states. But as American University law professor Stephen I. Vladeck told CNN at the time: “Legally, states have no authority to do anything because the question of who should be allowed in this country is one that the Constitution commits to the federal government.”

In fiscal year 2016, which started Oct. 1, 2015, and ended Sept. 30, 2016, South Carolina received 38 Syrian refugees, according to State Department data. In fiscal year 2017, which was from Oct. 1, 2016, through Sept. 30, 2017, South Carolina received another 11 refugees from Syria. Haley left the governor’s office in January 2017.

Correction, Jan. 11: We removed a sentence from this story, because we mistakenly attributed comments to Haley that were instead made by a South Carolina state legislator. We regret the error.

Scuffle Over Social Security 

In a back-and-forth on Social Security, both Haley and DeSantis left out important details when characterizing the other’s position on the issue.

“She said recently that the age of Social Security is way too low,” DeSantis said of Haley.

“He voted to raise the retirement age to 70 three different times,” Haley responded.

DeSantis and Haley in the CNN Republican presidential primary debate in Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University on Jan. 10 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Both statements are technically true, but require context. As Haley explained later in the debate, she does support raising the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits to address concerns about the program’s solvency — but only for people who are currently in their 20s. 

The former South Carolina governor announced her stance back in March, although she did not specify what the increased age would be. “What you would do is, for those in their 20s coming into the system, we would change the retirement age so that it matches life expectancy,” she told Fox News at the time. 

Haley confirmed in the debate that in her view, people in their 20s “should plan on their retirement age being increased” to better match life expectancy, but again declined to specify an age.

Haley is correct that in the past, DeSantis has supported raising the retirement age for collecting Social Security benefits. As we have written, as a member of Congress, DeSantis voted for three nonbinding budget proposals in 20132014 and 2015 that called for increasing the full retirement age to 70 and indexing it for life expectancy. Full retirement age, or when someone is eligible for full Social Security benefits, is currently 66 or 67. The proposal would not have changed the minimum retirement age, which is 62.

But DeSantis no longer backs that position. In March, a few months before announcing his presidential run, he said in an interview on Fox News, “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

Haley did allude to this shift, arguing earlier in the debate that DeSantis had changed his mind on Social Security and retirement age. “So now suddenly, he’s going to tell you because he’s running for president, he’s not going to do it,” she said. “You can’t trust him.”

In a Fox News interview in July, DeSantis appeared to entertain some changes to Social Security for people in their 30s or 40s. But during the debate — as he did in previous face-offs — DeSantis said he would not raise the retirement age “in the face of declining life expectancy.”

“The problem now in the last five years is life expectancy is going down,” he said, repeating a misleading claim from an earlier debate. “So I don’t see how you can raise the retirement age when our life expectancy is collapsing in this country. That’s a huge problem in and of itself.”

Life expectancy in the U.S. is not “collapsing.” Between 2019 and 2021, life expectancy did drop 2.4 years, largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that trend is already starting to reverse: According to the latest provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in November, life expectancy at birth for 2022 was 77.5 years — an increase of 1.1 years from the year prior.

Moreover, as we’ve noted before, what’s relevant for Social Security is life expectancy at retirement age — not birth — and the relative size of the working population compared with the retired population.

“Increases in life expectancy are a factor in the long-range financing of Social Security; but other factors, such as the sheer size of the ‘baby boom’ generation, and the relative proportion of workers to beneficiaries, are larger determinants of Social Security’s future financial condition,” an archived agency webpage reads.

In 2022, an average 65-year-old is expected to live another 18.9 years — generally longer than in previous decades.

Transgender Issues

DeSantis again scuffled with Haley over her record on transgender issues. He brought up 2016 legislation related to bathrooms and cherry-picked a statement by Haley on gender-affirming medical care for minors.

We’ll address the history of the bathroom bill first.

“When she was governor of South Carolina, they had a bill to protect girls from men going into the bathroom. She killed it and she’s bragged about it for years that that happened,” DeSantis said.

“When it comes to the bathroom bill, I will say, first of all, that was 10 years ago,” Haley said. “We had a handful of kids that may have had that issue. And what I made very clear at that time in the state is: girls go into girls bathrooms, boys go into boys bathrooms, and if there are any other exceptions, they use a private bathroom.”

As PolitiFact explained after the Dec. 6 Republican primary debate, it’s true that a bill had been proposed in 2016 in South Carolina to restrict public bathroom usage based on biological sex assigned at birth. But Haley’s role as governor in its failure isn’t clear.

North Carolina had passed a similar bill that year (although it repealed the main provisions the following year after backlash), and several other states considered similar legislation.

Haley told reporters at the time that she didn’t think the bill was necessary.

The bill died in committee, so it was never presented to Haley to veto or sign into law.

Later, in 2022, she claimed on Fox News that she had “strong-armed and said, ‘we are not going to have that in South Carolina,’” because it’s better to have a school work with parents to offer transgender children private bathrooms.

So, it’s true that she didn’t support the bathroom bill, but it’s unclear how much she influenced its failure.

As for Haley’s position on medical intervention for minors, DeSantis misled, as he did during the December debate. “She said she’s against the surgeries for minors,” DeSantis said. “That wasn’t what she said this summer. She was asked about it … and she said the law should stay out of it.”

“I have never said that we should have any gender operations or surgery,” Haley responded.

When Haley was asked on the June 5 episode of “CBS Mornings” what the law should allow for treatment of transgender youth, she answered: “I think the law should stay out of it and I think parents should handle it. This is a job for the parents to handle and then, when that child becomes 18, if they want to make more of a permanent change, they can do that.”

In a May 3 interview, Haley specifically said, “You shouldn’t allow a child to have a gender-changing procedure until the age of 18 when they are an adult.”

Haley on Border Wall

DeSantis accused Haley of flip-flopping on the need to build more border wall, claiming that in 2016 she ridiculed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump for proposing it. Haley said she never opposed the wall and she was making the point that it was only part of the solution to illegal immigration.

“Nikki Haley also opposed the border wall in 2016,” DeSantis claimed. “She, she ridiculed it when Donald Trump was for it. And I’m telling you, you need a wall. You can’t trust politicians to do this. If the wall’s there, it’s a physical fact of life.”

As she did repeatedly in the debate, Haley responded by directing readers to desantislies.com.

“I said you can’t just build a wall, you have to do more than build a wall,” Haley said. “It was having the wall and everything else. You can’t trust what Ron’s saying.”

The website Haley directed viewers to includes a video of the comment in question, which Haley made at a National Press Club luncheon on Sept. 2, 2015, in discussing a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration.

“If you notice, they’re all saying, ‘We want to secure the borders.’ That’s a big deal,” Haley said. “What does that mean to you in terms of your commitment to work with Congress to actually secure the border? Don’t say you’re just going to build a wall, because a wall’s not going to do it. 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.”

During her presidential campaign, Haley has advocated building more border wall. During a trip to the border in April 2023, Haley pointed to fencing built by the Trump administration and said, “We need to finish what we started.”

Response to George Floyd Killing

As he has on the campaign trail, DeSantis criticized Haley for a statement she made after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020.

“Nikki Haley and I have a disagreement on the BLM stuff too, because she tweeted during this period of time that the death of George Floyd should be, quote, personal and painful for each and every American,” DeSantis said. “But people in Iowa had nothing to do with that, or Florida or South Carolina. She was virtue signaling to the left. She was accepting the narrative and she was trying to impress people who were never going to like us.”

Haley said she found DeSantis’ comment “interesting” because he put out “a tweet that was very similar.” To which DeSantis replied, “That’s not true.”

We’ll let readers decide how similar their statements were in the days after Floyd, a Black man, was killed after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck during an arrest in Minneapolis for about nine minutes. Chauvin was subsequently convicted of murdering Floyd.

DeSantis was referring to a message Haley posted on X, then known as Twitter, on May 30, 2020.

“It’s important to understand that the death of George Floyd was personal and painful for many,” Haley wrote in her post. “In order to heal, it needs to be personal and painful for everyone.”

Haley also wrote, “Bad cops need to be held accountable and punished swiftly. They need to be made examples of and procedures should change but don’t underestimate the many good officers out there trying to keep all of us safe. Let’s fix the problems but not with more bad. Don’t add to the tragedy.”

Shortly after their debate exchange, Haley’s team posted on X that DeSantis was “trying to rewrite history on George Floyd.” The post included a video of DeSantis saying, “So when I saw the video of that cop murdering George Floyd, I was just absolutely appalled by what I saw.” DeSantis said he was immediately assured by Florida law enforcement officials that it went against state training to put a knee on a suspect’s neck like that. DeSantis called for “swift accountability not just for the officer who had the knee but the other ones that didn’t do anything. I think everyone agrees that that’s just totally intolerable what happened.”

That mirrors a statement DeSantis put out on June 1, 2020, saying: “Florida has zero tolerance for violence, rioting & looting. George Floyd’s murder was appalling & the MN perpetrators need to be brought to justice, but this cannot be used as a pretext for violence in our communities.”


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